Bruce Murphy
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Council Okays Funding for Indigent Defense

Many Milwaukee Municipal Court defendants are poor and lack an attorney.

By - Jul 8th, 2020 02:14 pm
City of Milwaukee Municipal Court.

City of Milwaukee Municipal Court.

The Milwaukee Common Council on Tuesday unanimously approved spending $100,000 to fund an attorney to represent indigent defendants at the Milwaukee Municipal Court.

The money will come from the city’s federally funded Community Development Block Grant allocation. The lawyer will be provided through a contract with Legal Action of Wisconsin. The funding proposal was part of a package that was approved without discussion.

The city is not legally obligated to provide defense counsel to indigent Muni Court defendants. That obligation is limited to criminal courts and Municipal Court is considered a civil court.

But it levies fines that if unpaid can lead to jail time, leading some to label it as a kind of debtor’s prison. A study of the court by the late John Pawasarat and the UW-Milwaukee Employment & Training Institute found that from 2008-2013, there were 9,277 defendants who did some jail time for failing to pay their municipal citations, and 78 percent were African American, 84 percent men, almost half from the city’s five poorest zip codes, the majority unemployed. 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, as Urban Milwaukee reported.

By law, judges are required to inform indigent defendants they have the right to work off a fine through community service, but the judges routinely failed to do so, as Gretchen Schuldt and the Wisconsin Justice Initiative found.

Ald. Michael Murphy successfully pushed to create a pilot program to provide funding for legal representation for Muni Court defendants and the city contracted with Legal Action of Wisconsin to provide representation, but despite its success the city chose not to extend the program in 2020.

Schuldt and the WJI advocated for the city to continue the program and the council has now reversed course and provided the funding.  “This is great news and a big step toward fairness in Municipal Court,” Schuldt said. “Mayor [Tom] Barrett and the Common Council deserve a big round of applause for their support.”

She noted the city took about two years to prepare a contract for the 2019 pilot project.

“That kind of delay can’t happen again,” she said. “There are tickets issued during the George Floyd protests in the Municipal Court pipeline, some of them questionable. There needs to be a defense lawyer available to help those who need it.”

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