Despite Municipal Court's success as a money maker for the City of MIlwaukee -- it raked in $14.4 million in profit over the last five years -- city officials are considering several steps to increase citation payments and revenue.
Municipal Court generated $14.4 million in profit over the last five years, records show, but the city's Outstanding Debt Work Group says there was a cumulative $40.5 million in Municipal Court outstanding receivables last year. In contrast, there was about $50 million in outstanding taxes and $34 million in outstanding parking citations.
The recommendations from the work group would expand the city's powers to force debtors to pay delinquent citations, but makes no recommendations to protect the rights of defendants. The city already funds police to write tickets, attorneys to prosecute Municipal Court cases, and a collection agency to collect overdue citations.
Defendants, however, are on their own and are not provided lawyers, even when they are facing incarceration. Municipal Court judges, who are supposed to hold indigency hearings to determine a defendant's ability to pay fines, often do not, court observations and audio of proceedings show. There is evidence that Municipal Court enforcement falls heaviest on those in the poorest city neighborhoods, where police presence -- and subsequent ticket writing -- is at higher levels.
One of the work group's recommendations seems to be self-defeating. The group is recommending the city attorney's office explore the possibility of requiring payment of all past-due citations before an individual's vehicle is released from the city tow lot. That would, of course, make it much more difficult for the defendant to get to or look for the job needed to pay the fine. Update: Ald. Terry Witkowski told the Common Council's Judiciary and Legislation Committee Monday afternoon this recommendation was intended only to apply to parking citations.
The group also is recommending the city explore "using wage attachments to collect delinquent debt" and that it begin a "friendly debt-collection program."
The work group's final report is to be considered Monday (Oct. 24) by the Common Council's Judiciary and Legislation Committee.
The group wants the Common Council to adopt an ordinance to allow immobilizing of illegally-parked vehicles "as a potentially more effective method of attaining parking compliance than towing" and is recommending the city lobby the state for a law allowing vehicle immobilization -- "booting" -- to tow or boot any vehicle with three or more parking tickets. Currently, only illegally parked cars can be booted.
Public shaming is on the agenda, too. The work group is recommending that the Police Department "conduct a media campaign and online publication of the top 100 most egregious offenders for outstanding debts and warrants," according to group's final report.
The recommendations come in the wake of city actions that already show that officials are looking to Municipal Court to generate funds for the cash-strapped city. The Common Council last year adopted -- and Mayor Barrett signed -- a resolution favoring adoption of state law that would allow the city to use a Municipal Court surcharge to pay for police body cameras. The measure's backers made clear the move was purely monetary and had nothing really to do with city ordinance violations.
And the proposed Common Council's Public Safety Action Plan, which has come under fire from a variety of community groups and residents, says the city could pay for some of its recommendations by writing 30,000 more tickets per year to people who call 911 for non-emergencies or non-existent situations. That could raise about $1.5 million, assuming all those cited pay their fines, according to the plan. In reality, the city would likely have to write 50,000 or 60,000 additional tickets to raise $1.5 million in fines because many people do not or cannot pay their fines.
City budget figures show that Municipal Court caseloads and revenue are down, but revenue is dropping at a much slower rate. The number of Municipal Court cases dropped 48% from 2011 through 2015, but revenue dropped just 20%.
In the five-year period from 2011 through 2015, Municipal Court realized $31.1 million in revenue, mostly through forfeitures, while costing $16.7 million to operate, for a "profit" of $14.4 million.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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