Gretchen Schuldt
Court Watch

West Allis is Top Debtors’ Prison

Jails more ordinance violators than all other county municipalities combined.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Jan 18th, 2018 02:29 pm
House of Correction sign.

House of Correction sign.

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.

Bayside, Fox Point, Glendale, Greendale, Greenfield, Oak Creek, River Hills, South Milwaukee,  Wauwatosa, and Milwaukee also showed declines.

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.

Source: Milwaukee County House of Correction

Source: Milwaukee County House of Correction

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.

7 thoughts on “Court Watch: West Allis is Top Debtors’ Prison”

  1. Tim says:

    Perhaps each local community should cover the cost of locking up their debtors. I’m sure they would come up with a much more effective way to get their money if they had to pay to house them.

  2. Rich says:

    Scandalous! Just who from River Hills was sent to County for not paying a fine?

  3. Dean Lade says:

    How about going beyond the basic reporting of numberes and explaining why West Allis charges higher amounts to more people? There is no analysis beyond basic math.

  4. John says:

    So the County, i.e. my taxes, pays for West Allis locking up people with unpaid parking tickets? I can’t believe that with all the propaganda out there about lowering taxes this isn’t a big thing. Someone please tell me I’m wrong!

  5. Otto says:

    This is how West Allis and its city employees crush dissent. They’ve done it for decades. They take pride in running the place like a feudal estate and its barbaric practices are a well known outlier within the legal community. If Gretchen knows what’s in her best interest, she’ll never set foot in the city. They like girls at the House.

  6. Johan says:

    There is a simple solution…don’t break the law.

  7. chris says:

    Each municipality does pay for each person that it incarcerates. This piece does a poor job explaining the details and differences. The County sets the daily rate, currently @ $35- $40 a day.

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