By Gretchen Schuldt
A Milwaukee County Board committee on Tuesday unanimously recommended establishing a program to provide defense counsel to indigent defendants accused of violating county ordinances.
The county pays for sheriff's deputies to write tickets, lawyers to prosecute the cases, and agencies to collect overdue payments of forfeitures levied as a result, Supervisor Joseph Czarnezki, a sponsor of the measure, told the Finance Committee. (Full disclosure: Czarnezki is a WJI Board member.) Yet defendants are expected to represent themselves, even if they don't understand what is going on in the courtroom or how to proceed.
"This is not what I would call justice," Czarnezki said.
Under the proposed 2022 budget amendment, co-sponsored by Supervisor Ryan Clancy, the corporation counsel's office would seek proposals for a contract attorney to represent the defendants. The $50,000 program would be a pilot, and data would be collected to help determine if it should be continued.
The program would be patterned after one operated by Legal Action of Wisconsin that provides defense lawyers for indigent defendants in Milwaukee Municipal Court, which hears cases involving city ordinances.
While indigent defendants in criminal cases are provided with publicly-funded lawyers, poor people accused of ordinance violations are not provided with lawyers because the violations are considered civil, not criminal, matters. Generally, those wanting legal representation ordinance cases must hire their own lawyers.
State law mandates that people arrested for certain ordinance violations, such as controlled substance offenses or some gambling cases, have their personal and arrest information entered into the state's criminal database, where it is available to potential employers, colleges, landlords, or anyone else with the $7 fee to get it, Czarnezki said. While those who are never actually charged or who are acquitted can request that their information be removed from the database, most people don't know how to go about doing that.
A lawyer, Czarnezki said, can help clients negotiate the court process. remind them about court dates, help them with payment plans, and help get records removed from the state database.
As a matter of equity, he said, "I think this is something we should do."
Clancy, who sponsored unsuccessful measures to reallocate some Sheriff's Department funding, said that having fewer deputies making arrests would be best, but the attorney resolution is "the second-best way to go."
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