By Gretchen Schuldt
The Milwaukee County Board on Monday unanimously approved establishing a program to provide defense counsel to indigent defendants accused of violating county ordinances.
The measure, introduced by Supervisors Joseph Czarnezki and Ryan Clancy, picked up 11 additional sponsors during Monday's meeting. They were Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson, and Supervisors Priscilla E. Coggs-Jones, Eddie Cullen, Russell Antonio Goodwin Sr., Jason Haas, Willie Johnson, Jr., Patti Logsdon, Felesia Martin, Shawn Rolland, Steven Shea, and Sequanna Taylor.
Czarnezki, during the Board discussion, noted that the county put significant resources into writing tickets, prosecuting their recipients, and collecting forfeiture amounts owed. Yet defendants are expected to represent themselves in court without assistance if they cannot afford it, he said. (Full disclosure: Czarnezki is a WJI Board member.)
Approving the pilot is a small thing the county can do to improve justice and equity in the county, he said.
"By providing funding for legal counsel for indigent individuals, County Board members showed they believe in justice for the most vulnerable in our community," he said after the meeting.
The 17-0 vote came during the County Board's deliberations on the 2022 county budget. The budget still must be approved by County Executive David Crowley.
Because county ordinance violations are considered civil and not criminal violations, poor people accused of them are not entitled to government-provided attorneys if they cannot afford to hire their own.
Clancy said ordinance forfeitures were a "tax on the poor" and that he would prefer that fewer citations be written. "It really is an inherently unfair system," he said.
The attorney pilot program is "an elegant solution," he said.
Under the amendment, 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.
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 if they submit a request and their fingerprints, 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.
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