Does Milwaukee Run a Debtor’s Prison?
Study finds Milwaukee Municipal Court jails thousands of poor people for failing to pay fines. Why?
Marilyn Walczak has worked in the criminal justice system for decades and has run the non-profit Justice Initiatives Institute, based in Milwaukee and Madison, for some years. Late in 2010, she was involved in a broadly-based effort to reform the Milwaukee circuit courts through what is called an “evidence-based decision making system,” which mapped the entire system at all points to see how it functioned and how it might be improved.
One part of the puzzle was the county jail, with many detainees who are there simply for failure to pay a municipal court fine. These fines, believe it or not, could be for offenses as minor as spitting in public, littering or removal of contents from a waste bin.
Walczak’s group eventually commissioned John Pawasarat and the UW-Milwaukee Employment & Training Institute to study the municipal court system. Pawasarat’s research on driver’s license suspensions was recently featured in a two-part story by National Public Radio.
His study of Milwaukee’s municipal courts was a bit like turning over a rock and finding a squalid mini-world with its own peculiar patterns and punishments. Pawasarat concentrated on Branch A of the muni court, which tends to deal with those violators who end up getting detained in court. What he uncovered might make a novel by Dickens.
The idea of charging these predominantly poor people millions of dollars in fines is, by itself, quite disturbing. But it becomes all the more dismaying when their failure to pay results results in imprisonment. The study found the average person incarcerated had spent an average of 8 days in jail, for a total of 98,824 days spent in jail by the population studied.
“The jailed population was heavily concentrated from the neighborhoods with higher numbers of low-income residents and of residents of color,” the study found. “83% of those detained… had residences in the city’s 11 poorest ZIP code neighborhoods.”
But it gets worse. The system is actually a huge failure that rarely succeeds in collecting these fines. The population studied had 66,623 citations/cases with judgments totaling $15.7 million in the nearly-six-year-period studied, but $12.5 million or 85 percent of that money was never paid.
But it gets worse. The system actually loses money for the taxpayers. “The County jail costs to taxpayers were $10.2 million to detain individuals who failed to pay $5.7 million to the City of Milwaukee for municipal tickets.” (In essence, the county is paying for the city’s failed system.)
But it gets even more dismaying. The municipal court judges can employ alternatives to fines, using an alternative sanction like requiring community service. But this alternative is rarely used, despite the fact that offenders have a higher compliance rate with community service than paying fines.
A big chunk of those jailed for nonpayment of fines was for people charged with driving with a suspended driver’s license. The study included 13,602 traffic cases that went to municipal court and 89 percent were people charged with driving while under suspension. But very few of these suspended licenses were for unsafe driving: 82 percent of the underlying suspensions, the study found, weren’t for traffic offenses, but for failure to pay fines.
The study offers an appalling factoid: Under state law, you can have your license suspended for six months for reckless driving, nine months for first offense drunken driving, 12 months for hit and run with a person injured in the accident — and 24 months for failure to pay a ticket for a burnt-out tail light.
Up to two-thirds of African-American men of working age don’t have a drivers license in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, Pawasarat has found. Retired Milwaukee Municipal Court Judge Jim Gramling was so appalled by the problem of poor people losing their drivers licenses that he has worked with lawyers and court officials to help start the solution-oriented Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability. “What we see constantly here at the center are drivers who have accumulated a series of tickets that are directly related to their lack of income,” he told National Public Radio.
A study in 2013 from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators raised concerns that police and state and local motor vehicle officials find too much of their time and budget is tied up going after people with suspensions for minor lawbreaking that has nothing to do with safe driving.
Nationally, the group estimates, as many as three-fourths of suspended and revoked drivers continue to drive. In Milwaukee, given the lack of transit to where jobs are located in outlying suburbs, a car is often required for anyone who wants to work. And so those with license suspensions drive anyway and get caught, racking up yet more fines or jail time. It’s a vicious cycle.
Because the municipal courts typically deal with minor offenses — traffic cases, disorderly conduct, trespassing in a building, public drinking, vandalism, possession of marijuana, excessive noise, aggressive panhandling — those coming to municipal court are rarely assigned an attorney and may not know their rights.
“If a person can’t pay their fine in 60 days (as required), they might be afraid to go back to court,” Walczak notes. And failure to appear in court is often handled by sentencing them to jail. “The system is set up under the assumption that you are guilty.”
If you’ve ever attended municipal court, you’d know what a zoo it can be. Judges are processing tons of cases quite quickly. It’s a complex, often overwhelmed system and it may not be simple to reform. Walczak notes that state statutes may need to be changed. But she adds that the statutes do allow considerable discretion for judges.
Walczak says her group has shared any data before publication with municipal court judges and is hoping for cooperation and constructive dialogue. “We’re not pointing a finger at them. We’re looking at the whole system, to map out what we are doing and how can we do it better.”
To judge from this study, we could hardly be doing it worse.