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ASHLAND — A group of defendants from northern Wisconsin is suing over funding and staffing problems in the state Public Defender’s Office, arguing the rights of indigent defendants in Wisconsin to competent attorneys and speedy trials have been violated.

The five men and one woman from Ashland and Bayfield counties filed their lawsuit in federal court this week, the Ashland Daily Press reported. Those bringing the lawsuit contend that indigent criminal defendants in Wisconsin “are simply not being promptly appointed the effective legal counsel mandated by the United States and Wisconsin Constitutions.”

The lawsuit also alleges those problems are hurting not only the defendants but the entire region, through increased jail costs, lost work time and a sluggish court system.

State officials say Wisconsin’s low compensation rate for private attorneys has contributed to the shortage of lawyers willing to represent people who can’t afford a private attorney.

“The six we’re dealing with here are our neighbors, people from our communities,” said H. Craig Haukaas, one of the attorneys who filed the suit. “I can tell you with certainty that the problem is much, much greater in other parts of the state and I expect attorneys in other parts of the state to have interest in our case.”

Public Defender’s Office spokesman Randy Kraft told the newspaper in a statement that the office is aware of the lawsuit but is withholding comment until it finishes reviewing it.

The six defendants who brought the case were without an attorney for weeks.

“These are people who are charged,” Haukaas said. “They have not been found guilty, and they are entitled to effective representation. They are people who were working, were charged and could not afford an attorney. Anyone could find themselves in that situation.”

According to the lawsuit, it takes an average of 24 days for the state to find an attorney to take on a client in Ashland or Bayfield county.

The suit seeks court orders for a deadline for the state to outline a plan to reform the Public Defender’s Office and a system to guarantee that lawyers who represent poor clients have manageable workloads.

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