Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Does Milwaukee Run a Debtor’s Prison?

Study finds Milwaukee Municipal Court jails thousands of poor people for failing to pay fines. Why?

By - Apr 30th, 2015 12:24 pm
Police Administration Building, 951 N. James Lovell St. Photo by Christopher Hillard.

Police Administration Building, 951 N. James Lovell St. Photo by Christopher Hillard.

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 study found that from 2008-2013, 9,277 individuals did some jail time for failing to pay their municipal citations, with judgments totaling $6.5 million. The majority of those detained for failing to pay their fines—78 percent—were African American, and 84 percent of the detainees were men. Almost half of them live in the city’s five poorest zip codes. The majority are unemployed, while those who are employed work at low-wage jobs.

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.

“They want to focus on the people who pose a risk to the general population that’s driving on the roadway. And those are usually the people who are suspended for … things like hit-and-run crashes, DUIs, unsafe speed, reckless driving — those actions that we as a society consider severe and dangerous on the roadway,” said the study’s author Robert Eger, in the NPR story.

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.

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Categories: Murphy's Law

43 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Does Milwaukee Run a Debtor’s Prison?”

  1. The Weak Shall Prevail says:

    Why aren’t we going after these deadbeats, especially when you have a known address for them:

  2. AG says:

    The vast majority of people doing time for unpaid penalties are men, yet the vast majority of people in poverty are women. Perhaps the courts aren’t the problem… maybe there’s a culture among some people that leads them to not care about paying fines?

    If this was just about poverty we’d see far more women doing time.

  3. PMD says:

    We’re talking about thousands of people AG. Simplistic generalizations might not apply. I’m sure some people just don’t care about paying fines, but there’s no way that applies to everybody. I’ve been dirt poor before. I’ve lived paycheck-to-paycheck. It sucks and you have to make hard choices, and it’s easy for me to imagine people being in a position where they can’t afford a fine. And some of the fines are just ridiculous. Spitting. Jaywalking. All sorts of nonsense. I’ve done both and have never been fined for them.

  4. AG says:

    Sure, I agree PMD. However, the story here is purporting to say that there is a trend and a problem with the overall system. If you can make generalizations like that, then we can make generalizations all around. Besides, I doubt Bruce, Marilyn, and John are all saying everyone who does time is a victim… neither am I saying that everyone here is a deadbeat. We’re just talking patterns.

  5. PMD says:

    It definitely seems like there is a problem with the system. Similar problems have been widely reported elsewhere. Examples of the criminalization of poverty are endless.

  6. Steve says:

    I left Milwaukee 15 years ago for this exact reason. You live in a neighborhood with no parking so you park illegally and rack up fines that you can’t afford then they suspend your license. They don’t care about the citizens, they care about that money. As for filling the jails the taxpayers pay for that not the judges,lawyers and politicians whose friends and family have money invested in privately owned jail services companies. The more people they put in jail the more money ends up in their pocket. It’s corrupt to the core.

  7. AG says:

    If it was poverty driven… we’d see a more direct cross section of those in poverty. Hence why I brought up that 84% of the jailed people were men even though 71% of Milwaukee’s people in poverty were women.

  8. PMD says:

    So what drives it then? Laziness? Or are men more likely to be fined and jailed for these types of offenses (spitting, jaywalking, littering)? Or is it too difficult to know for sure even if men are 84% of the jailed?

  9. AG says:

    I like how you keep mentioning the spitting, jaywalking, littering… spitting and littering make up less than 1% of the offenses and jaywalking isn’t even listed.

    Here are the things that jump out at me. The number of repeat offenders and people who have multiple citations. The amount of drug related citations. The number of disorderly conduct citations. The number of citations revolving around homelessness and/or mental illness. And finally, how little community service is used as an alternative.

    For those who truly can’t pay, I’d love to see them provide more opportunities for community service and for those who are homeless and/or mentally ill, to receive the treatment they need. Unfortunately a far greater number of these cases (but not all, PMD) involve people who really appear to just not care…

  10. PMD says:

    It’s not meant to be a comprehensive list AG, merely examples of the more frivolous fines that people are fined for. Whatever the driver is, it’s incredibly easy to demonize poor people, and I’m glad Bruce wrote about this. It’s a problem nationwide, and it’s something worth paying attention to.

  11. PMD says:

    Sorry I meant more frivolous offenses.

  12. Dave says:

    “Unfortunately a far greater number of these cases (but not all, PMD) involve people who really appear to just not care…”

    That’s a pretty bold conclusion based on your interpretation of the data. Perhaps if you met some of these people, you wouldn’t be so presumptuous.

  13. PMD says:

    I agree Dave. In 5 years 9,000+ people did some jail time for failing to pay a municipal fine. There’s no way anyone knows for sure that the majority of those people just don’t care.

  14. AG says:

    Wouldn’t we really just be demonizing poor males? Poor females don’t seem to have nearly the same problem.

  15. Bruce Murphy says:

    It’s worth noting, I think, that nonpayment of fine can result in imprisonment. I would think that would make anyone “care” enough to pay fines rather than going to jail. There’s also the fact that when community service has been used (on a limited basis) as an alternative sanction, it has had more success, and that would require some degree of “caring.”. There is probably much more that needs to be learned here, but doesn’t seem advisable to leap ahead of the data.

  16. PMD says:

    Maybe that’s the case in Milwaukee. Not sure if the same is true nationwide.

  17. AG says:

    You’re reading that statement wrong. They may very well care, but they “appear” not to care.

    And I have met plenty of “these people” and they’re as individual in their motivations as they are in their level of character. I don’t presume to know them all.

  18. AG says:

    Now that I think about it, since driving without a valid license, assault and battery, resisting arrest, or possession of drugs can see jail sentences of 90 days to 6 months or longer… doing 3 days in jail (the median jail time in the study) seems reasonable for things as avoidable as those.

  19. PMD says:

    Yeah I’d say resisting arrest and assault & battery are pretty serious offenses, much more serious than what I think of when I think of poverty offenses.

  20. Casey says:

    Let’s look at this culturally when comparing female and male poverty and incarceration rates. Males are looked to as providers (in this sense as the person to control resources) and also greater risk takers. Because we feel the need to have resources to provide for those around us we are more apt to break the law in order to obtain them or to appear to have the ability to obtain them. When you’re poor there’s not as many ways to demonstrate this so it really comes down to machismo and there’s no quicker way to get locked up then by demonstrating your machismo on a Friday night….or any other night for that matter.

    Woman, especially women in poverty tend to be the primary caregiver to their children and will then take less risks in order to ensure that their offspring is provided for on a immediate bases. Mom does something wrong and gets locked up she won’t be around to care for the most important person to her.

  21. Marc Mcweeney says:

    The system is equally unfair for poor people already involved in the criminal justice system. If a person is on probation after serving time, he/she frequently is required to pay certain fees, for example, a lie detector test, or fees for receiving probationary services. If the person is unemployed, as is frequently the case, and cannot pay, the failure to pay is an automatic violation of the probation and the person can be sent back to jail or prison. This forces the person’s family, also frequently poor, to borrow money to pay the fee.

  22. AG says:

    Casey, that’s essentially the premise behind my own interpretation of the situation as well. We all have our own motivations and desires and our own analysis of the consequences to everything we do (good and bad). The consequences of spending a few nights in jail are generally considered far more detrimental to a single mother than they are to the single male who is not a care giver.

    Other factors certainly come into play before the court process even begins, but I’m sure the aforementioned consequences are a much better deterrent to the single mothers, thus motivating them to stay out of the system in the first place… let alone leaving an unpaid fine or not showing up for a hearing.

  23. PMD says:

    Do that many males really not care about spending a few days in jail? I just can’t imagine that being true. Maybe it is, I really don’t know for certain, but it’s hard to believe that a lot of males would just shrug and say “yeah fine whatever” over the prospect of spending a few days in jail. It can’t be a fun place to be.

  24. AG says:

    PMD, I highly doubt anyone finds it to be a pleasurable experience… and that’s not what I was saying. But there’s a lot involved with motivation and consequences. Think back to your college days… did you ever have a paper due or a test the next day but instead decided to go do something with friends instead? Maybe not, you might have been extremely responsible… but some people might make that decision. It’s not because they don’t care about the test or the grade on the paper… it’s just that in the moment they were more motivated to socialize.

    There’s a lot of psychology behind the choices we make. That example is very different than whether or not to pay a court fine, but the basics of human nature and how we make decisions is fundamentally the same. What motivates/demotivates us? What’s important to us?

  25. bruce Murphy says:

    I did occasionally turn in a college paper late. I think I would have always been on time if the punishment was a few days in the county jail.

  26. PMD says:

    Yeah what Bruce said. A reduced grade on a paper turned in late is not quite comparable to a few days in jail.

  27. Casey says:

    PMD- I would actually say Yes, that many males do not care about spending a few days in jail. The first time you get locked up it might mean something to you but unfortunately you become accustomed to it so it because not that big of deal. Also there are many males that are groomed by society to think that getting locked up shows you’re that more of a man and tough. “Go ahead lock me up…you’re not going to control me” is a very popular attitude that speaks to how incredibly jacked up our society is.

    Bruce- good way to make light of the situation. I’m sure the all the college graduates that are routinely getting locked up think that’s a very apt comparison.

  28. AG says:

    Deciding whether or not to tie your shoe has the same basic fundamentals regarding the decision making process. Just because you won’t go to jail for not tying your shoe doesn’t mean you can’t discuss the common idea of consequences to actions.

    To get back on topic… the #1 controller of this entire system is the individual in court. There’s a lot of stops on the route before and during the system where most people can get themselves out. For those who can’t, we should provide extra resources. For those at risk, but not yet in the system, we should help them avoid it. However, the rest need to suck it up and deal with the consequences and stop blaming the system.

  29. Bruce Murphy says:

    I agree AG, get back on topic: this is not a study about offenders blaming the system, its a study commissioned by experts in the justice system looking to make Branch A of muni courts perform more efficiently for taxpayers and handle offenders in a more sensible and equitable fashion.

  30. PMD says:

    Do you say that based on personal experience Casey? Have a lot of males in Milwaukee told you that they would rather spend 3 days in county jail rather than pay fines?

  31. Casey says:

    PMD- This is both from personal experience and those I was around as a teenager to young adult. The idea of paying fines doesn’t really come into the equation. They don’t pay the fines because they don’t really want to and eventually that turns into a warrant. Next time you have police contact they run your name and you go in.

  32. Mpolenz says:

    Even if you serve your jail time, you still owe the fine! It will be taken from your tax refund, etc and of course that is done by a collection agency that contracts with the city. If you pay the fine with the city, the agency still goes after the debtor if it had already gone to collections.

  33. Casey says:

    Mpolenz- I don’t know what jail you’ve been in but the amount you serve is based on the amount of the fine and is prorated for any money that is applied to it. Once you serve enough time to equal the amount of the fine you’re done. There is also a processing fee/tax.

  34. Dave says:

    So not only do we pay to house the debtors but we then do not collect the debt? WTF?

  35. AG says:

    So Dave… your solution is to jail them AND make them pay? That’s harsh…

  36. Casey says:

    Fines are punitive, they’re not owed for services or goods rendered. Jail is punitive…you see how that balances Dave?

    The real problem here are these punitive actions are not getting the desired results – a more orderily society-

    How do we get a massive population nationwide that regularly serves short stints in jail to be more orderily?

  37. Tim says:

    Casey, it’s almost like you’re saying that if these people had an opportunity to work consistent jobs with halfway decent pay, that this massive population might be more orderly… did I get that right?

  38. Casey says:

    Tim- I think that would go a very long way but at the same time I think the problem starts even before men are of legal working age.
    I think for young men growing up in a broken family it is more difficult to make the right decisions and have the patience and self-discipline to function well in our society.
    We then add more instability to our lives by getting into trouble and getting locked up starting when we’re young adults and loosing our retail/fast food job. This makes it even harder to get hired at a place that would begin to pay a decent wage because they wont/shouldn’t hire someone that isn’t dependable.

  39. Jeremy says:

    I was immediately concerned more with Casey’s thought in Comment 36. The punishment is not providing the desired result. Can we change the punishment? If fines are not being paid, and jailing is actually a net loser for the taxpayer, why not more community service? I’m leery of what qualifies for community service but the savings from a program could easily staff a garbage detail or grass cutting crews.

  40. AG says:

    Although I believe there are many worthwhile causes in Milwaukee that could use more volunteers… something about the idea of using those community service hours to clean up and beautify the city seems very appealing. For starters, our parks department could probably use a hand in basic maintenance so their staff can concentrate on other needs and priorities.

  41. PMD says:

    I agree AG (see it is possible!).

  42. Casey says:

    What if they don’t show up for service?

    Does anyone ( I really don’t) have any decent ideas on how to get people that are raised in an enviroment to be more responsible and do the hard thing, paying the ticket timely, or live a more orderly life so these types of conversation don’t even have to be had?

  43. John says:

    This is happening in Green Bay Wisconsin and no one wants to do anything about it. Due process is being violated and state law, especially Wis Stats 800.095. The municipal judge does not make proper determination of indigent. Even after a person makes a request for a hearing as granted in 800.095 it is ignored. The judge never asked about a persons welfare status. As granted a person that qualifies for certain programs as outlines in 814.29 (d) a judge shall make a finding of poverty and issues an order. How can a judge find poverty if they do not ask. I do not think the judge is making proper decisions of ability to pay by not making the proper inquiries. I guess if he doesn’t ask it just coerces defendants to pay with the threat of jail time in order to finance the city.

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