Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Municipal Court Cancels Alternatives Contract, Sparks Controversy

Opponents say the change could hurt vulnerable defendants, increase incarceration.

By - Jun 13th, 2023 10:10 am

Gavel. (Public Domain).

The Milwaukee Municipal Court‘s termination of a court alternatives contract has a coalition of attorneys, criminal justice advocates, a newly-elected judge and Common Council members asking questions and fearing the most vulnerable of those appearing before the court will be negatively impacted.

At the direction of the city’s two long-serving municipal court judges, the court is ending a decades-old partnership with JusticePoint. The nonprofit works with people cited for violations that are also at risk of incarceration due to indigence, substance abuse or mental health issues. Individuals can be offered community service or treatment in lieu of paying a fine or serving jail time.

The contract will end July 11, but exactly what will replace JusticePoint has yet to be announced.

The Common Council’s Judiciary & Legislation Committee spent two hours debating the matter Monday.

“I don’t know about it. I was not involved in the decision,” said newly-elected judge Molly Gena. “I am very concerned because JusticePoint does incredible work and it’s very vital to what I do.”

The decision was made by judges Phillip M. Chavez and Valarie Hill in the period between the November resignation of Derek Mosley and Gena’s April election.

“The court has every intention of continuing its program of court alternative remedies,” said administrator Sheldyn Himle.

In public, the only reason offered for the cancelation was that it was made for a contractually-defined “convenience.” Assistant city attorney Kathryn Block said additional information as to why could be discussed in closed session.

Gena said the in-house nature of the partnership has been very valuable in the four weeks she’s been on the job.

“On the bench, I have a very short amount of time to talk to these people and find out what’s going on,” said Gena. Instead, the defendants are referred to meet with JusticePoint staff. The nonprofit’s team works out of an office in the court’s building, 951 N. James Lovell St., and offers same-day meetings. Gena said the immediate service is critical because it’s unlikely many would return to a future appointment.

“The judges are going to be referring to different agencies for different types of services,” said Himle. She said a new vendor to replace JusticePoint would be selected via a request for proposals, but the court could find a temporary substitute with a sole source contract. Himle said it was unknown who that would be.

More than a dozen people spoke Monday, with several noting with concern that the court didn’t seem to have a plan to insure there wasn’t a gap in service. Multiple speakers suggested that more people could end up in jail if a court alternatives program temporarily didn’t exist or became more difficult to access and that a long-term ripple effect would be felt among Milwaukee’s most vulnerable population, many of which are members of minority groups.

“This is extremely troubling how this is being done and why this is being done,” said Joseph Ellwanger, a long-time civil rights activist and coordinator with Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MIACH). He called for “transparency, clarity and making sure in the process we do not have people falling through the cracks.”

Sylvester Jackson, a fellow MIACH member who was formerly incarcerated, said the impacts would be disproportionately felt by Milwaukee’s Black community.

“The whole thing is really quite fishy to me and troubling at this level,” said Alderman Jonathan Brostoff.

JusticePoint officials that appeared Monday said they believe the termination is because of confusion about providing citation information to Legal Action of Wisconsin, which provides city-sponsored legal representation to some defendants.

“To go from that confusion to immediately terminating our contract is extreme,” said Nick Sayner, the executive director of JusticePoint.

He said the city worked with the court, including then-judge Mosley, starting in 2016 to set up a data-sharing partnership with Legal Action that went into effect in 2018. Sayner said the practice was immediately halted upon learning it was a concern.

The city has worked with JusticePoint since the early 1980s.

“Attorneys should have access to basic case information when putting forward a defense,” said Susan Lund, an attorney with Legal Action. She said the practice of providing citations isn’t revealing privileged information. “Attorneys have received identical copies of citations through open records [requests] for years.”

Gena, the newly-elected judge, is the former Legal Action managing attorney.

Erika Petty, executive director of Lotus Legal Clinic and a former Legal Action attorney, said it was critical for human trafficking victims to be offered a court alternatives program. “It could be the only time someone is being supported and being provided these services,” she said.

In a letter to the committee, former municipal court judge James A. Gramling, Jr. called the program “critical to fulfilling my judicial function and responsibilities” and called for the program to be reinstated.

Committee chair Mark Borkowski at several points warned that the matter could be headed for litigation and cautioned city officials to be careful what they said and for members of the public not to point fingers.

“I don’t think this decision was made lightly,” said Ald. Mark Chambers, Jr. “I think we need to be mindful of that.”

But regardless of what the council thinks, it can’t vote to reverse the process.

“As a practical matter, the council has no role in this process,” said Block, the assistant city attorney. The judges are independently elected and oversee the court. The city’s purchasing department could sign and terminate the contract because it was funded through the council-approved budget. Ald. Michael Murphy estimated its value at approximately $600,000. The agreement is currently in a period of one-year extensions.

The committee’s formal action was to hold the file for future discussion. Borkowski said it could be revisited at the committee’s next meeting, July 5.

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Related Legislation: File 230246

Categories: City Hall

One thought on “City Hall: Municipal Court Cancels Alternatives Contract, Sparks Controversy”

  1. lccfccoop2 says:

    Great article explaining a complex issue. Cancellation of Justice Point contract will be a disaster for clients and community and ticket payment won’t increase either. We will just have more addled or beat down people roaming around and cycling through muni court.

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