Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Right to Counsel Program a Success, Report Finds

Attorneys for clients facing eviction prevented this in 70% of cases.

By - Mar 28th, 2023 06:59 pm
Milwaukee County Courthouse

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene

Milwaukee County’s Right to Counsel Program, providing free legal representation for low-income Milwaukee County residents faced with eviction, has been a success, a new report shows.

The program, called Eviction Free MKE, was launched in September 2021 as a pilot program with approximately $3 million in funding from Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee and the United Way of Milwaukee and Waukesha. Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and the Legal Action of Wisconsin have represented participants in the program.

Once the program began, representation for tenants during evictions rose dramatically. That’s according to a new report by Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm, which was contracted by United Way to monitor and evaluate the efficacy of the project. The report covers the first 16 months of the program from September 2021 through December 2022.

Prior to the launch of the program, the percentage of defendants with legal representation during eviction proceedings was approximately 2% to 3%. After the launch and through Nov. 1, the monthly representation rate was between 6% and 16%, and the average monthly rate of representation was 10%.

In a majority of cases, attorneys working for the program successfully helped their clients achieve their goals for the case: eviction judgments were prevented in 76% of cases; eviction records were sealed in 72% of cases; and attorneys prevented an involuntary move in 70% of cases.

The report notes that 63% of all evictions filed during the program occurred in majority-Black census tracts and 78% of clients for the program identified as Black women.

The Right to Counsel program was initially created through a county board resolution authored by Sup. Ryan Clancy and passed by the board in May 2021. “With this report’s release, it’s clearer than ever that this policy is right both for individuals and for Milwaukee County,” Clancy said in a statement. “I am hopeful that this compelling data will better allow Milwaukee County to be a model for other local governments and will urge Wisconsin to become the fourth to adopt Right to Counsel as a statewide right.”

The report, thick with data from the first 16 months of the program, also includes observations of local eviction trends and indicates that as evictions were prevented or resolved a number of positive effects occurred downstream: children were kept out of the foster care system, families were saved from homelessness and the shelter system’s numbers and migration out of Milwaukee was reduced among other things.

During the period covered in the report, Stout estimated there were nearly 5,500 children living in households represented by Eviction Free MKE attorneys, who managed to avoid “disruptive displacement” for approximately 66% of their clients.

Before the Right to Counsel program was implemented, county officials looked at similar programs around the country and predicted that Milwaukee would save approximately $2 in social safety net spending for every dollar spent on the eviction counsel. The Stout report estimates that Eviction Free MKE likely outperformed this estimate, saving approximately $3 for every dollar spent. This includes the costs for foster care, housing, healthcare spending, lost economic value due to migration out of Milwaukee and federal and state funding for Milwaukee Public Schools.

The report notes that along with an ongoing Right to Counsel program, Milwaukee County should “consider other supports and interventions, including but not limited to: sustained rental assistance, pre-filing mediation, post-filing program response to ensure effective resolution based on case complexity, effective community outreach, and collaboration between Milwaukee stakeholders.”

The regular delay in rental assistance payments to landlords remains a problem for eviction prevention in Milwaukee — something the report found both both the landlords and the attorneys for tenants agreed upon. There are two emergency rental assistance administrators in Milwaukee County, the Social Development Commission and Community Advocates. The report notes, “Of the more than 46,000 applications for emergency rental assistance from February 1, 2021 through December 31, 2022, Community Advocates approved approximately 15%, declined approximately 23%, and have approximately 62% with pending/not specified status.”

Read the full report on Urban Milwaukee.

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One thought on “MKE County: Right to Counsel Program a Success, Report Finds”

  1. BigRed81 says:

    Income Inequality causes poverty.
    Evidence-based program keeps Children out of Foster Care & Prevents Homelessness. It merits expansion.

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