Tommy Thompson Told His Daughter to Try Being a Public Defender –and It Launched Her Career

Kelli Thompson admits she wasn’t entirely eager to become a lawyer, particularly the kind involved in courtroom work. As a student at Marquette Law School, “I probably did a very, very good job of staying far, far away from any kind of trial advocacy or litigation type of class. I think my thought was I would get the J.D. behind my name and just do something else. The something else, I have no idea what that was going to be.”

But, she said during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall on October 15, 2019, “In my third year of law school, I think it was killing my father that I was not even considering going into a courtroom.”

Her father, by the way, is Tommy G. Thompson, who, at that time in the mid-1990s, was governor of Wisconsin.

Kelli Thompson recalled, “At that point in time, he certainly wasn’t pushy, but he said, ‘Before you decide you hate it (courtroom work), you at least have to try it.’ . . . He said Marquette has wonderful clinical programs.” He told his daughter to pick one. “I said, ‘OK, you pick for me because I don’t know what I want to do’ . . . He said, ‘There’s no doubt, public defender, you should go there.’

So she did. “I can say quite honestly, after my first couple of days, I was hooked,” Kelli Thompson said.

She graduated from Marquette Law School in 1996 and became a fulltime public defender. She loved it – she loved the way she could help people, as well as the people themselves. However, after several years, the demanding work was taking a toll, the pay wasn’t great, she had gotten married, and they were starting a family, so she left. But a couple years later, she returned. And in 2011, she became the state public defender, heading an office that handles 138,000 to 145,000 cases a year in every county in Wisconsin. The office includes about 375 public defenders, supplemented by private attorneys who take some cases.

Thompson described the value and appeal of being a public defender, as well as the difficulties – she used the term ”crisis” to describe some aspects – facing the public defender system. The pay and the demands of the work continue to make it hard to attract and retain attorneys on the staff, and Wisconsin has fallen to the bottom of the nation in hourly pay for private attorneys taking public defender cases. It has been difficult to provide attorneys in some cases, especially in rural areas. The state budget approved in June raises that hourly rate, as of Jan. 1, which will help, Thompson said. But even with that, the need to do more to assure the quality of work by the public defenders’ office remains a top priority for Thompson.

During the program, Thompson said the criminal justice system as a whole is not doing what it should to help people get their lives on better paths while maintaining public safety and justice. She said more should be done to help people with mental health problems and other issues in ways that would be effective and less costly to the public.

The cash bail system in Wisconsin keeps some people in jail for long periods before trial, even if the bail amount is as low as $100, she said. Some states are doing more than Wisconsin to allow people out of jail without harming public safety, she said, adding, “We need to take a deep breath on bail.”

She also raised concerns about the long list of collateral consequences after release for people who have been incarcerated in Wisconsin. The consequences include problems finding places to live and jobs. They can make it hard for people to establish stable lives after release.

As for the length of some sentences in Wisconsin, Thompson said, “We keep thinking longer, longer, longer, tougher, tougher, tougher means we’re safer. We’re not safer. We’re not making our communities safer.” Preventive help to more people would do more to improve safety, she said – and could help with Wisconsin’s shortage of workers in some job categories. “This work force is sitting in custody,” she said.

In an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program last year, Tommy Thompson said one of his big regrets about his time as governor is that he pushed to lock up too many people and build too many prisons. Gousha asked Kelli Thompson if she had played a role in changing her father’s opinions. She said they have had serious conversations and she likes to think that had a bearing on his current views.

The one-hour conversation may be viewed by clicking here.


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