Council Okays Lawyers for Muni Court
Will help defendants who can be jailed when they can’t afford to pay fines.
Ald. Nik Kovac called the problem of poor people going to jail for a failure to pay fines a “Dickensian situation.”
“Too many of our neighbors in this city do not know their rights when they appear in Municipal Court, and some of them then end up in jail merely for their inability to pay,” he noted.
On Tuesday, after one quibble by Ald. Bob Donovan, the council quickly moved to unanimously approve an allocation of $45,000 in annual funding to Legal Action of Wisconsin (LAW) to provide representation for indigent Municipal Court defendants.
“LAW will offer free representation to residents who can’t afford an attorney in Municipal Court cases, especially in cases where police officers are expected to testify against the defendant, or in cases where defendants face suspension of licenses or jail time,” a press release by Ald. Michael Murphy noted.
Murphy and Kovac had co-sponsored an amendment to the city budget one year ago to create this funding, and Murphy has worked with Municipal Court Judge Derek Mosley on a request-for-proposal process that chose LAW as the service provider for this new program.
Donovan questioned the proposal, saying “It is my understanding that jail is not an option for any municipal violation. Am I incorrect in that?”
“Yes, you are,” Murphy answered. “About 50 individuals were incarcerated last year.”
“Well, I’m going to have to look into that because that’s news to me,” Donovan replied.
Actually the numbers incarcerated were far higher in years past, as Urban Milwaukee has reported. A study of the Municipal Court by the UW-Milwaukee Employment & Training Institute found that from 2008-2013, 9,277 individuals did some jail time for failing to pay their municipal citations; 78 percent were African American, 84 percent men, almost half from the city’s five poorest zip codes and the majority unemployed, the study found.
As Ald. Bob Bauman noted in his speech to council members, legal representation is required under the law in criminal courts, but not in something like Municipal Court, where defendants are only assessed civil forfeitures. But those who do not pay are sometimes sent to jail by the judges, and many of those people may be indigent.
Municipal Court has long been a money maker for the city. As Urban Milwaukee has reported, the city court had expenses of $3.4 million and revenue of $6.8 million, generating a net income of $3.4 million in 2011, but that income has declined as Chief Ed Flynn has deemphasized issuance of tickets by police. The 2018 budget projected just $3.9 in revenue and $3.1 million in expenses, an estimated net income of only $800,000, but that may be low given that Flynn has been pressured to change his policy on police pursuits, which may result in more tickets.
At any rate, the $45,000 represents a small portion of the net income for the city from Municipal Court. And the goal of ending the city’s “debtor prison” was so compelling to council members that many requested to be added as co-sponsors of the legislation.
Murphy see this as a “pilot program” to see how well it works in the first year. “This will help improve and enhance confidence in the judicial system,” he said. “Before this initiative passed, indigent residents were walking into court at a disadvantage.”
The proposal’s passage is a big victory for Gretchen Schuldt and the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, which has documented the fact that Municipal Court judges sometimes fail to inform defendants of their right to an alternative of community service if they can’t afford to pay fines.
Schuldt pushed the city to provided legal representation for indigent defendants and helped convince Murphy and Kovac to sponsor the legislation. “This will simply balance the scales a little bit,” she said in the press release. “The city has funded Municipal Court prosecutors for years. Now, for the first time, poor people who don’t understand Municipal Court processes and don’t have the ability to adequately represent themselves will have a defense lawyer to help them.”
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