The Milwaukee Common Council on Tuesday unanimously approved spending $100,000 to fund a lawyer to represent indigent defendants in Municipal Court.
The money will come from the city's federal Community Development Block Grant allocation. The lawyer will be provided through a contract with Legal Action of Wisconsin. The funding proposal was part of a package that was approved without discussion.
A short-term pilot project of the defense lawyer program last year was successful, but the city originally chose not to extend the program in 2020.
The Wisconsin Justice Initiative advocated for the city to fund the pilot project and to restore the defense lawyer position.
"This is great news and a big step toward fairness in Municipal Court," WJI Executive Director Gretchen Schuldt said. "Mayor Barrett and the Common Council deserve a big round of applause for their support."
She noted the city took about two years to prepare a contract for the 2019 pilot.
"That kind of delay can't happen again," she said. "There are tickets issued during the George Floyd protests in the Municipal Court pipeline, some of them questionable. There needs to be a defense lawyer available to help those who need it."
Alderman Michael J. Murphy, the budget amendment that created the pilot program, said he was pleased with the new council vote.
“This program has been exceptional in helping indigent defendants who would otherwise be stymied in their ability to work their cases to a more positive outcome, because of poverty, unpaid citations, or driver’s license issues,” he said.
The city is not legally obligated to provide defense counsel to Municipal Court defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers. That obligation is limited to criminal courts – Municipal Court is considered a civil court and the monetary penalties levied there are considered civil forfeitures.
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