DeCecco leaves a still woefully-understaffed DA’s office

THERE IS NO AGREEMENT on what is the most effective way to fight crime. But most would agree that one effective tool is swift, vigorous and efficient prosecution of wrong-doers.

That is difficult to achieve, however, when local district attorney offices are woefully understaffed.

National standards recommend one prosecutor for every 10,000 people in a county, but Sheboygan County currently has one prosecutor for every 15,000-plus people – a ratio that is replicated all across the country. An analysis in 2014 by the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau said Sheboygan County needed an additional 7.8 prosecutors to handle the case load and responsibilities at that time.

The result is a prosecutorial staff that is stretched to – and sometimes beyond – the limits, unable to devote the proper attention to each case it handles. That can lead to case mismanagement, possible inadvertent malpractice and some cases either not being prosecuted at all or not prosecuted to the fullest extent required.

Adding to the burden is the explosion of new crimes such as identity theft, Internet crimes and more that local district attorneys are being asked to prosecute. The increased technology of investigating and prosecuting crimes produces even more pressure on local prosecutors, who too often are overworked and underpaid in comparison to their counterparts in the private sector.

All of that is one of the messages Sheboygan County District Attorney Joe DeCecco has delivered long, loud and often during his nearly 14 years in office.

In his annual report in 2014, DeCecco warned that, without staffing increases in his office, “We are quickly approaching the point where I will be forced to decline to prosecute some 750 to 1,000 minor crimes each year in order to properly address the more severe crimes. The citizens of this county deserve better than that but, without additional prosecutors, I will have no alternative.”

Now DeCecco has announced that he is stepping down at the end of his term and the question has to be asked – how well was his message heard?

At the local level, quite well. The County Board as recently as just over a year ago solidly endorsed his call for increased staffing in his office and has provided whatever support it can for the district attorney’s office.

But unfortunately, the bulk of the funding for the district attorney and his staff doesn’t come from the county but from the state, which also sets the number of attorneys in each county’s district attorney office.

The state has not stepped up and met the challenge, with the result that district attorneys too often are outmanned and outnumbered in their challenge of enforcing the law and protecting our safety.

Many times, a visit to DeCecco’s office in the Sheboygan County Courthouse would find him almost literally buried in paperwork and case files as he and his staff tried to keep up with their workload.

It is a credit to his dedication and professionalism that the people of Sheboygan County were represented so well in court over the past 14 years by DeCecco and his staff and that crime was prosecuted so vigorously and so successfully for the most part.

But it would be fitting if DeCecco’s successors are given the necessary staff and tools to make that effort even more complete and successful.

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