Edgar Mendez

Muni Court “Warrant Withdrawal” Draws Thousands

Special one-day clemency program a success, but treatment of indigent questioned.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Dec 20th, 2016 10:33 am
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An estimated 2,400 defendants appeared at the Milwaukee Municipal Court during Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays. Photo by Edgar Mendez.

An estimated 2,400 defendants appeared at the Milwaukee Municipal Court during Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays. Photo by Edgar Mendez.

It began with a Thursday night video Facebook post on Oct. 27 from Municipal Court Judge Valarie Hill announcing an innovative project in which individuals with municipal warrants could walk in to court without cash and without fearing arrest and have their warrants lifted on one of the following three Wednesdays.

Within hours, thousands had shared the post. Hill, Municipal Judges Phillip Chavez and Derek Mosley, who also appeared in the video, and Chief Judge Maxine Aldridge-White, worked behind the scenes for months to get “Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays” off the ground, after “Safe Surrender,” a similar effort involving both state and municipal courts, failed to gain traction.

In the end, the initiative, which was loosely based on a similar project in Cleveland, Ohio, challenged the ability of the municipal court system to handle a huge influx of defendants while maintaining normal functions on those Wednesdays, Nov. 2, 9 and 16.

“It was a test to see whether we could do something so big, and whether the community would respond,” White said.

Municipal court judges announced Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays in a Facebook video.

Municipal court judges announced Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays in a Facebook video.

And respond they did. According to municipal court data, 2,400 defendants appeared in court during Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays, representing a total of 15,397 cases. More than 1,500 defendants had warrants withdrawn, 1,048 had driver’s license suspensions vacated and 158 had vehicle registration denials vacated. More than 500 defendants had payment installment plans approved for an estimated 4,270 cases, involving a balance of more than $584,000.

In addition, 1,078 defendants who hadn’t previously appeared in court for their cases did so.

Aliceo Benitez was among those who hadn’t shown up to court before, but stood for hours in a line that stretched more than three blocks along West State Street during the final “Warrant Withdrawal Wednesday.” Benitez set up a $20 a month payment plan for $400 in fines that resulted in a suspended license.

“Now I can get my license back and get to work,” said Benitez in November.

Timothy Robinson said he had warrants for battery and traffic violations hanging over his head for three years. He too walked out with an arrangement to pay $20 a month, but, said he was disappointed that his fees weren’t tossed out altogether, as he had assumed would happen.

Nevertheless, Robinson said, “It still works if that’s how it has to be.”

According to Hill, who spoke during a meeting of the Milwaukee Community Justice Council (CJC) Wednesday, defendants were given three options; set up a $20 a month payment plan; pay $20 every three months at the courthouse; or be referred to JusticePoint, a program that helps evaluate individuals to determine whether they qualify for indigency, mental health, or alcohol and drug treatment, among other services.

Indigency issue

Only 109 individuals, or 4.5 percent, were referred to JusticePoint, though a great deal more should be eligible to qualify for indigency, said District 3 Alderman Nik Kovac, who raised concerns at the CJC meeting that residents of low-income neighborhoods continue to bear the brunt of municipal fines. He questioned whether enough was done to identify individuals who couldn’t afford to pay their fines and qualified for alternative sentences, including community service.

“Do we have a good enough system to identify indigents?” he asked.

According to Gretchen Schuldt, executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative (WJI), the lack of indigency hearings is disturbing.

“Why did only those people get referred to JusticePoint? Is community service the only alternative option being offered? What about mandating driving [classes] or other classes to work off fines?” Schuldt asked.

One of the problems with the current municipal court system is that it emphasizes fines over changing behavior, she added. The result is that poor African-American communities are disproportionately impacted by municipal debt. According to municipal court data collected by WJI, 25 percent of youth and adults living in the 53206 ZIP code owed municipal fines as of May.

According to Chavez, the indigency, community service or social service option was offered to each defendant. Those who chose that option filled out an evaluation form to see if they were likely to qualify for JusticePoint services, according to Chavez.

Even some who qualified for community service rejected the option because it was burdensome, said Hill. She pointed out that for someone to work off a $2,370 fine they’d need to perform 237 hours of community service. “People don’t have time to do community service; maybe if their situations were less complicated by everyday life [they would],” Hill said.

State Sen. Lena Taylor said the current JusticePoint model and limited options for community service are insufficient. “It’s a misguided concept based on the idea that the only way people can give back to the city is by paying money,” she said.

Taylor added that a better mechanism is needed to help facilitate alternative sentences including community service. Still, Taylor said she was thankful for the Warrant Withdrawal Wednesday program, and that it showed great promise.

Though no similar event is being planned, Mosley said it’s important for defendants to know that they can come into the courthouse any day to work out a plan to lift their warrants.

“What we need is an “at least come to court campaign,” Mosley said.

Data on whether defendants are keeping up with their payment plans should be available in 90 days, the judges said.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

5 thoughts on “Muni Court “Warrant Withdrawal” Draws Thousands”

  1. Roderick Rush Jr. says:

    This proves how racist the city of Milwaukee is, or the state of Wisconsin in general, “Heck! the United States.” Its quite evident who warrants are issued to, Black people, or for the ignorant and incompetent white american vernacular, “minorities”. This article and photo is on here to perceive Black people as criminals and unruly citizens. I’m sure most of the people are in line for petty non-payed parking tickets that were then issued as warrants, but that only happens to the Black people, or once again as the white american may say, “minorities”. Milwaukee is being gentrified and this is on government scheme to help get the ball rollin’. The city of Milwaukee is one of the poorest cities, not its citizens, but simply the city itself. City has no budget to regularly maintenance roads, invest into education for its public school system, or even provide reliable, affordable transportation for the ENTIRE city. But all these high rises, condos, and refurbishings are happening, but not by the city; instead the city is relying on private investors to build in the city, but the gag is, the city has no input into how its done or protect those who are affected.

  2. MONICA SANCHEZ says:

    EXACTLY Roderick!!! You are RIGHT ON!!! I hope the Mayor and higher ups see your post.

  3. RAFE says:

    Once again, the race card rears its ugly head. That doesn’t work anymore.

    Haven’t you heard? Part of making America great again is getting people to take responsibility for their actions. I will give the people in line credit. At least they’re attempting to square up what they owe.

    The losers who do not show up and attempt to pay their dues to society, should end up in jail. Then of course you would be crying about that because there would be more black men in jail. It would be disproportionate to society as a whole. It would be breaking up families. Blah, blah, blah…

    Take some responsibility for your actions.

  4. Blobbb says:

    Whenever I’m in one of the primarily lower income areas of the city (although as I’ve mentioned before, don’t assume EVERYONE living in the lower income areas is there because they have no other choice, we do have a good number of people who could easily afford to live elsewhere, but choose to live in these areas because it is home to them, they care about the areas, etc. They’re likely the ones with the very well kept homes on some blocks where a good number of homes are in rough shape or just abandoned in some cases) but whenever I’m there and especially at night and see the little Jeeps rolling the streets like circling vultures, poaching any car they can for a parking ticket and sometimes that results in a tow truck taking it away as well, maybe a few unpaid tickets so now someone who’s likely in tough financial shape already gets whacked with MINIMUM $150 tow fee, hassle of picking up car, etc. To me, the whole idea of of MKE city uses parking tickets FAR MORE as a revenue source than it does to uphold any sort of parking laws (when I lived at east side home that had ONLY driveway on the block near UWM, I’d get parked in REGULARLY-guess what? Flagging down one of the ubiquitous parking vultures there didn’t do spit! I had to call a city # to have a “special Jeep” dispatched and often that takes HOUR or more and car’s gone, HOURS for a tow so i can get my damn car out, its all about the $$$$, but hey we’ve got a streetcar to nowhere to pay for, dammit!)

    So, for low income victims of the greedy parking vultures I have no problem with this at all, the city ought to get its damn spending under control so it doesn’t need to use parking tickets as a major cash source in the first place.

    Yet, when I hear about the guy with the battery tickets “hanging over his head” feeling miffed he’s got to pay ANYTHING, hey how about just not beating the crap out of your girlfriend, some guy who looked at you funny at the gas station, etc and solving that one that way?? You didn’t see me waiting in line (or just paying my battery tickets before it came to that) BECAUSE I DON’T BATTER OTHER PEOPLE!!!

    Same goes for all the clowns driving like, well like total clowns (thought speed limit on Cap is 30, apparently many think its 65 and the right 3rd lane is for “extreme passing” and we all know damn well a bunch of them don’t even have a license to begin with, so do you think if they don’t have a damn license that they did bother to get insurance?? Hell no! Try getting T-boned by one of the many red light running clowns we have and then do the “one call does it all” thing. “Oh you said the other driver had no insurance??” CLICK!!! “Hello?? Anyone there?” Hmmm, I think they just hung up on me! Yeah, one call doesn’t do shit when there’s no one to sue, God forbid it is worse than just your car being demolished, what if you suffer a major injury? You’re screwed!

    When we have people who think they can show up and just for the “hardship” of waiting in a long line that not just a couple of old parking tickets but also tickets for things like beating on someone else ought to just get wiped clean-hey you beat up your girl and (THIS TIME!) got a ticket, but by showing how much you care by waiting in line for a bit, we’re just wiping it all away, when people think THAT is likely to happen it shows how little care so many people here now have for the rules and laws the rest of any civilized society follows. How about stopping the endless cycle of letting “everyone else” clean up your messes and pay for all of your screw ups for once????

  5. Roderick Rush Jr. says:

    Well I could already assume you’re of the privileged majority, who is oblivious to what really is a discriminatory act. It is race, I don’t have to pull the “race card”, its there for you to see. “getting people to take responsibility for their action.”, what does that mean?! And when you say “people”, who are you referring to Black people? “Just say it, don’t be scared, I’m sure it makes you uncomfortable,” because you know that’s who you’re directing the word towards. But anyways, you just stated all the facts in your comment, but mentioned it in a condescending way, or if its some cry out for help. Why would one have to take responsibility for an action that is falsely accused or take responsibility for a citation that was issued with no probable cause. I can go through all the scenarios of why, not, “the race card”, but of how officers are discriminatory towards “minorities”, I’ll use that since this is america, and specifically with pull-overs, issuing warrants, “probable cause”, and how white privilege seizes to know nothing about the facts because they don’t personally endure these misfortunes. As a result white privilege reflects in your comment, of course a privileged person would accept their citation and go on happily about their day pay it, but for Black people, or so I don’t make you too uncomfortable, “minorities”, are issued citations relentlessly just for being themselves. There’s significantly more white privileged people in Wisconsin, the only black population in Wisconsin is in Milwaukee and still even the white privileged population in Milwaukee is greater as well. Furthermore, how is there more of the Black population, sorry “minority” population, being issued citations, being arrested, and being issued warrants?

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