West Allis is Top Debtors’ Prison
Jails more ordinance violators than all other county municipalities combined.
West Allis municipal ordinance violators last year spent a total of 21.5 inmate years in the House of Correction because they did not pay their fines.
That is more time than the 18.7 inmate years non-paying ordinance violators from all 18 other county municipalities served, according to preliminary House of Correction figures.
Because municipal violations are considered civil offenses, rather than criminal, defendants are not entitled to legal counsel. Municipal violations are petty offenses such as disorderly conduct, littering, and traffic violations that are handled through tickets and municipal courts operated by cities and villages.
West Allis’ 2017 commitment total was up 3.1 years, from the 18.4 years ordinance violators in that city spent locked up in 2016, according to House data.
In contrast, Bayside, Hales Corners, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, and West Milwaukee did not send anyone to the House for non-payment of forfeitures in 2017, according to the figures.
A total of 11 municipalities showed a drop in the number of days municipal offenders were locked up. St. Francis showed the biggest decline in days. It sent ordinance violators to the House for a total of 888 days in 2016 and 155 in 2017, a decline of 733 days, or two inmate years.
Milwaukee’s figures might be misleading because some Milwaukee’s municipal commitments are served at the County Jail, not at the House, where the vast majority of suburban commitments are served.
House commitment days increased in Brown Deer, Cudahy, and Franklin, in addition to West Allis, according to the preliminary figures.
West Allis forfeitures for municipal violations are some of the highest in the county. A simple marijuana possession charge, for example, carried a $1,321 price tag.
That also was the case in 2015, according to a Public Policy Forum report. Meanwhile, the same offense in Bayside typically carried, typically, a $691 financial hit; in Shorewood, the cost was $376; in Wauwatosa, $100 – $200.
State law requires municipalities to reduce the amount of an unpaid Municipal Court fine by at least $50 for each day a violator is jailed, and most (but not all) municipalities hold to the $50 amount. So an unpaid Wauwatosa marijuana citation that would result in a four- to six-day stay in the House would mean in a 26-day stay if the ticket was issued in West Allis.
Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation.