By Gretchen Schuldt
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. Meanwhle, 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.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Municipal Court traffic cases were down 13 percent during the first nine months of the year compared to the same time period last year, court records show.
Overall, there were 31,515 traffic cases in Milwaukee Municipal Court through September, down 4,912 from the number in the same time period last year, an average drop of 546 cases per month.
The court does not originate the cases - the statistics reflect the activity of the Milwaukee Police Department.
The number of traffic cases jumped sharply in August and September as public pressure about the issue got through to police.
The Police Department is using a data-driven system, Data Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACT), to identify traffic enforcement target areas, Asst. Police Chief James Harpole said. DDACT effort was made a priority enforcement tool in April, he told the Common Council's Public Safety and Health Committee.
Steve O'Connell of the Sherman Park Neighborhood Association listed for committee members some high-accident areas around Sherman Park.
Sherman Park residents gathered signatures on petitions seeking a written plan from the Police Department on how it will step up traffic enforcement in the city. The petitions also ask that police be required to report to the committee monthly on how many traffic tickets they issue. The circulators collected 76 pages of signatures without too much effort, O'Connell said.
The number of tickets issued by police has gone down dramatically over several years, he said.
"What's going on? Why less tickets? There's no reason for less tickets," he said.
Committee Chair Ald. Robert Donovan said bad driving was "epidemic" throughout the city.
"I am telling you, and you know damned well...that traffic safety in this city is for crap," Donovan told Harpole.
"Every single time I drive, I'm actually afraid," Ald Mark Borkowski said. He expressed some frustration with a police PowerPoint presentation on crime and traffic enforcement. "All I'm hearing is statistics," he said. "We all get these damned calls, and it's not right. These roads are out of control and it's not OK."
Harpole said traffic enforcement was a priority for the police.
"Our officers are putting forth a concerted effort every single day to make this city a safer place," he said.
A County Board committee recommended, 5-0, on Thursday that the county increase the daily amount it charges municipalities to house municipal ordinance violators in the House of Correction and the County Jail.
The $25.40 per day the county now charges has not changed in 10 years. The new charge has not been determined, but could be in the $35 - $40 per day range, Deputy Corporation Counsel Colleen Foley told the Judiciary, Safety and General Services Committee.
The Wisconsin Justice Initiative, during the 2017 budget process, asked county supervisors to consider raising the rate both to increase county revenue and discourage municipalities from using the incarceration option for petty offenders.
State law allows the county to recover certain costs associated with housing the offenders, who are Municipal Court defendants who do not pay their forfeitures on time and who do not attend a hearing to determine whether they are qualified for an alternative sentence due to poverty. Foley made clear to the committee that the county is limited in the costs it may recover from the communities.
Last year, municipal ordinance violators were locked up in the House of Correction for a total of 43.73 years, according to county figures. Because municipal ordinance violations are considered civil matters and not crimes, defendants are not entitled to attorneys.
Photos, from left: County Supervisors Deanna Alexander, Theodore Lipscomb, and Sheldon Wasserman.
Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman said the resolution is not designed as a money-maker, but to cover costs. Wasserman is sponsoring the measure with County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb and County Supervisor Deanna Alexander.
West Allis will be the most affected by any rate increase, as it incarcerates far more municipal defendants than any other community in the county. Last year, West Allis incarcerated municipal ordinance violators for a total of 18.7 years.
The chart below shows how many times a municipality committed a Municipal Court defendant to the House, how many total incarceration days the defendant served, and the average commitment length.
Most commitments from Milwaukee Municipal Court, per Sheriff David Clarke's directive, are served at the County Jail in downtown Milwaukee, not at the House of Correction in Franklin, where commitments originating in the suburbs are served. The chart captures only those Milwaukee defendants transferred to the House, generally when the jail reached its population capacity.
The number of commitments from each community does not necessarily reflect the number of individuals incarcerated, as a person can have more than one commitment.
The table below was updated May 18, 2017 to reflect adjustments provided by the House of Correction.
The City of Milwaukee also paid the Sheriff's Department for 72 boarding days for commitments served at the County Jail, according to the city comptroller's office.
There were a total of 2,483 commitment days served at the jail in 2016, according to the Milwaukee County Department of Administration. Generally, only City of Milwaukee commitments are served at the jail.
Incumbent Valarie Hill on Tuesday took first place in a four-way Municipal Court primary that saw just 7.9 percent of registered city voters cast ballots.
She will face second-place finisher William Crowley, a disability rights lawyer, in the April 4 general election.
Just 27,855 of the city's 352,765 registered voters cast ballots in the race, according to preliminary returns from the Milwaukee Election Commission.
Hill, a Municipal Court judge since 2004, garnered 13,084 votes. That is 46.7 percent of ballots cast for any candidate in the race, including write-ins, but represents votes from just 3.7 percent of registered voters. Hill's perceived acerbic attitude toward those who appear before her and the failure by the court's three judges to fully inform defendants of their rights are issues in the race.
Crowley, a lawyer with Disability Rights Wisconsin, won 5,356 votes, 19.2 percent of those cast in the race. He won support from just 1.5 percent of registered city voters.
Third-place finisher Brian J. Michel, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, received 4,880 votes,or 18% of the total. Just 1.4 percent of registered voters cast their ballots for him.
The final candidate, Assistant City Attorney Kail Decker, got 4,342 votes, or 16 percent of the total in the race. Some 1.2 percent of city voters supported him.
Write-in candidates got 193 votes, or 0.69 percent of the total cast in the race.
The number of cases filed in Milwaukee Municipal Court plunged by almost 8,000 in 2016 and by more than 75,000 -- 54% -- in the last five years, records show.
The three Municipal Court judges presided over 65,007 cases in 2016, down 11% from the 72,923 Cases heard in 2015. In 2011, there were 140,181 cases in Municipal Court, or 75,174 more than there were last year, according to Municipal Court statistics.
The continuing decline is bound to raise new questions about the need for three full-time Municipal Court judges, as the average caseload in the three regular branches (excluding Branch A, a court for in-custody defendants) dropped from 46,032 in 2011 to 21,392 last year, a decline of 24,639 cases per judge.
Ald. Terry Witkowski during 2017 budget deliberations proposed eliminating a court branch, but that was defeated after judges suggested the lower case loads allowed them to spend more time on each case. In addition, according to the city's proposed budget, caseloads were up as of July. Witkowski could not be reached for comment Monday. The 2017 budget for Municipal Court is $4.8 million.
Traffic offenses remain the most common type of Municipal Court case and account for 68% of all cases, Still, while traffic offenses are of increasing concern to aldermen and city residents, the number of traffic cases was down, by seven percent from 2015 to 2016 and by 54% from 2011 to 2016.
There will indeed be four candidates vying for the Municipal Court judgeship now held by Valarie Hill.
They are Hill, a Municipal Court judge since 2004; William Crowley, a lawyer with Disability Rights Wisconsin; Assistant City Attorney Kail Decker; and Brian Michel, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society in Milwaukee. All four candidates filed nomination papers by the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline.
The general election is April 4. The primary election will be Feb. 21.
Municipal Court judges serve 4-year-terms. Hill is paid $133,289 per year.
You can read more about the candidates here.
Data from the three individual Municipal Court branches that participated in "Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays" will not be publicly released, according to Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Maxine White.
"We did this for reasons that cannot be measured on paper," she said.
Thus far, Municipal Court has released only limited results for the three branches combined.
White, the county's chief judge, made her comments during a meeting last week of the Community Justice Council, which includes representatives of Milwaukee-area criminal justice agencies and local governments who work to improve the justice system. While White is not generally involved in the day-to-day activities of Milwaukee Municipal Court, she has some oversight functions as chief judge. She is not, however, the Municipal Court records custodian, so her authority to withhold the records is not clear.
"I don't understand the justification for refusing flat out to release information," said Brian Michel, the lawyer who asked that the data be released by branch. Compiling such data should not be a big deal, the Legal Aid Society attorney said in an interview.
The cases are "still tracked by branch," he said. White's flat assertion that they would not be made public is a "concern," he said.
White was joined by the city's three Municipal Court judges -- Phillip Chavez, Valarie Hill, and Derek Mosley -- to talk about the three "Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays" Municipal Court held last month to encourage people to deal with their Municipal Court cases.
Both Michel and Ald. Nik Kovac, who attended the meeting, praised the effort behind the program.
"I am glad the Municipal Court is proactively trying to reach the thousands of Milwaukee residents with active warrants," Kovac said later. "The fact that over 1,000 of the 2,400 total citizens who showed up for Warrant Withdrawal Wednesday had previously not appeared in court speaks to the effectiveness of the social media outreach."
The court used Facebook to spread the word about the Wednesdays.
Kovac said he had concerns, however.
"The fact that only 100 of those 2,400 appearances -- less than five percent -- were referred to JusticePoint indicates that even on such a day the court is not adequately addressing the poverty rates in our community -- which are certainly higher than five percent,' he said.
"...the court is not adequately addressing the poverty rates in our community..." Ald. Nik Kovac.
JusticePoint is an agency that evaluates defendants to determine their ability to pay and potential need for mental health or AODA services. Hill, the judge, said all of those referred to JusticePoint were found to qualify for an alternative sentence, but not everyone elected the community service option because of the difficulties in accruing enough hours to pay off their forfeitures.
Indigent Municipal Court defendants are entitled, under law, to sentencing alternatives, such as community service, rather than the usual forfeitures. The city's Municipal Court judges, however, have not routinely fully informed defendants of their rights, as they are required to do under state law.
And while the Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays suspended some enforcement actions against defendants delinquent in paying forfeitures, the forfeitures are not fogiven and the enforcement actions, such as driver's license suspensions and issuing warrants, will begin again if the debts are not paid.
"It does us no good as a city to expect those who can't pay to pay," Kovac said. "And there are options other than money for our citizens who can't pay with cash to still pay their debt to society. Hopefully, in the future our Municipal Court will embrace and champion such community service options for the poor in our city."
Presiding Municipal Court Judge Phillip Chavez said during the meeting that he does inform defendants of their rights, not just always when proceedings are recorded. WJI has reported that Milwaukee Municipal Court judges, including Chavez, are not fulfilling their legal obligations to inform defendants of their rights.
Chavez said cases must be tracked from beginning to end to determine when and if defendants are informed of their rights. State law, however, is quite specific about how and when judges must deliver the message -- orally and in writing, at the time that the judgment (verdict) is rendered.
Kovac said he was "distressed" by Chavez's comments.
"His response was not, 'Yes, I always follow the statute and inform people of their rights.' It was 'You can't prove I don't because not all of my contacts are recorded.' That response from a (presiding) judge should be concerning to us all. Hopefully all three judges in the future will explicityly and publicly comply with the statute and proactively notify everyone of their possible rights as indigents."
Michel said he was concerned that the 1,000+ people making their first Municipal Court appearances during Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays may not have been fully informed of their rights by all the judges.
White, during the Community Justice Council event, also said that she evicted the press from Milwaukee Municipal Court during a Warrant Withdrawal Wednesday.
"I ran them out of the building," she said. She said she did not know if she had the authority to eject the press from public courts, but that she was concerned with privacy issues.
Courts and courtrooms are generally presumed to be open to the public in Wisconsin.
Court officials said they would track the long-term results of Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays to determine how many defendants default.
About 25% of youth and adults in the 53206 zip code owed Municipal Court fines as the end of May, according to a Wisconsin Justice Initiative analysis of Municipal Court statistics.
The statistics cover outstanding debt on judgments issued between Jan. 1, 2012 and May 31, 2016.
Defendants in the 53206 zip code, the highest-poverty zip code in the city, also were the most likely to be cited, racking up 41,900 tickets from 2011 through 2014, according to another set of Municipal Court figures. Yet just 723 defendants in the zip code were offered and accepted alternative sentences, though Municipal Court judges are supposed to offer them to indigent defendants. WJI has reported here and here that Milwaukee Municipal Court judges do not routinely inform defendants of their rights to alternative sentences, as they are required by law to do.
The 53206 figures are "pretty shocking and deserve much more research," said Ald. Michael Murphy, chairman of the Common Council's Judiciary and Legislation Committee.
Aldermen Milele A. Coggs and Russell W. Stamper II, who represent the 53206 area, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Common Council voted last month to spend $45,000 to contract with an attorney to represent indigent defendants in Municipal Court and to supervise third-year law students who will do the same.
WJI's zip code analysis assumes that outstanding Milwaukee Municipal Court fines are owed by people who are at least 15 years old. The analysis is based on census figures statistics provided by Municipal Court to the city's Outstanding Debt Work Group.
The analysis shows:
There may be as many as four candidates vying for the Municipal Court judgeship now held by Valarie Hill.
As WJI reported earlier, Brian Michel, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society in Milwaukee, has announced he is running for Hill's seat. Hill. Two other challengers now have joined the race: Assistant City Attorney Kail Decker and William Crowley, a lawyer with Disability Rights Wisconsin.
All four candidates have filed campaign registration statements with the Milwaukee Election Commission.
Crowley's LinkedIn page says he is a family care and IRIS ombudsman with Disability Rights, a position he has held since October 2014. In that job, according to LinkedIn, Crowley proves assistance to clients and potential clients of publicly funded long-term care.
He received his law degree from Marquette University in 2011.
Decker has been a Milwaukee assistant city attorney since February 2014. His campaign Facebook page appears to take a direct shot at Hill, known for her caustic approach to those who appear before her.
"A judge should not publicly berate another person, remove a person from court for dubious reasons, or make incorrect legal rulings," it says. "With Kail serving as municipal judge for Branch 1, every person would be able to walk into a respectful, reasonable environment and leave with dignity and confidence in the integrity of the court."
Decker graduated from Marquette Law School in 2008.
Michel has been with Legal Aid, a public interest law firm that provides legal assistance to low-income Milwaukee County residents with civil legal issues, for three years.
There, he said on his campaign Facebook page, he "provides no-cost representation to low-income residents facing a wide range of issues, from eviction defense and unemployment compensation appeals, to defending against municipal citations and predatory consumer transactions."
Hill has been a Municipal Court judge since 2004. She received her law degree from the University of Akron School of Law.
The general election is April 4. The primary election will be Feb. 21.
Municipal Court judges serve 4-year-terms. Hill is paid $133,289 per year.
The Common Council on Friday approved funding for a lawyer to represent indigent Municipal Court defendants.
Municipal Court judges routinely fail in their legal obligations to defendants, particularly when it comes to informing them that they can request alternative sentences if they cannot afford to pay the fines.
"People who are indigent or poor have not had fair representation before the court," said Ald. Michael J. Murphy, who sponsored the measure. "This is a small measure to go toward that."
Murphy's amendment will provide $45,000 to contract with an attorney to represent indigent Municipal Court defendants and to supervise third-year law students who also would represent indigent defendants.
Murphy warned the council against looking at Municipal Court, which earns more than $1 million annually in "profit," as a revenue producer.
Co-sponsor Nik Kovac referred to audio tapes, posted by Wisconsin Justice Initiative, of Municipal Court judges failing to tell defendants of their potential right to an alternative sentence. "One of the reasons so many people have warrants out for them....they can't pay it and they don't know what to do, and the judges never told them what their rights were, which they're mandated to do by state law," he said.
Murphy's amendment originally lost, 8-7, but it eventually won, 9-6. WJI gave up too early and incorrectly reported on Friday that the measure was defeated.
Murphy's amendment originally lost, 8-7, but Murphy persuaded Ald. Terry Witkowski and Robert Donovan to support it, and the final vote in favor was 9-6. Voting for the measure, besides Murphy and Kovac, were Aldermen Robert Bauman, Jim Bohl, Mark Borkowski, Robert Donovan, Jose Perez, Terry Witkowski and Tony Zielienski. Opposing it were aldermen Milele Coggs, Ashanti Hamilton, Cavalier Johnson, Chantia Lewis, Khalif Rainey, and Russell Stamper II.
A quick recap of the legally mandated notices that Milwaukee Municipal Court judges are required to give defendants at judgment:
"...the court shall inform the defendant, orally and in writing, of the date by which restitution and the payment of the forfeiture, plus costs, fees, and surcharges imposed...must be made, and of the possible consequences of failure to do so in timely fashion, including imprisonment...or suspension of the defendant's motor vehicle operating privilege...if applicable. In addition, the court shall inform the defendant, orally and in writing, that the defendant should notify the court if he or she is unable to pay the judgment because of poverty, as that term is used in s. 814.29 (1) (d), and that he or she may request community service in lieu of payment of the judgment."
But Milwaukee Municipal Court judges do not take the law entirely seriously, at least as it applies to them. Here is more evidence -- the judges' own words.
Presiding Judge Phillip Chavez is speaking in the two audios. In the first, he doesn't come anywhere close to fulfilling his obligation. In the second, he does come close, but doesn't quite get there -- there is no mention of community service, for example. A question: why don't the judges ask BEFORE they issue a fine if the defendant can afford to pay it?
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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