By Gretchen Schuldt
A successful Milwaukee program to provide defense lawyers to indigent defendants in Municipal Court is over because the city ended funding for it.
Legal Action of Wisconsin, in the one-year, part-time pilot program, won or negotiated dismissal of 40% of citations issued in cases it defended, according to a report prepared by the agency.
"The system works better if all parties are represented," said Kori Ashley, a Legal Action lawyer who worked on the project.
Now that the program has ended, she said, "we're back to the same old, same old."
The city pays police to issue tickets and the city attorney's office to prosecute cases.
Indigent defendants in Municipal Court, though, are not entitled to court-provided lawyers, meaning that most indigent defendants who show up represent themselves, often not very well.
Municipal Court is a money-maker for the city. In 2018, the court cost $3 million but brought in $5 million, according to city budget figures.
The Common Council in November 2016 approved a budget amendment by Ald. Michael Murphy that allocated $45,000 to the defense lawyer project. Due to city delays in getting the paperwork done, however, the project did not launch until last year. Funding ran out at the end of 2019.
Legal Action has applied for Community Development Block Grant funding to continue the program, and the council will vote on that in late spring or early summer.
Murphy said he is "fully supportive" of the Municipal Court project. If it is not funded this year, he said, "I will certainly put it in the budget for next year."
Some results, according to the Legal Action report:
Many clients don't have permanent addresses because of chronic homelessness.
"These are individuals who absolutely need legal representation," Ashley said.
Some clients had mental health issues with "very stark competency issues....These individuals should not be getting citations," Ashley said.
Both the city attorney's office and Municipal Court judges were receptive to Legal Action's work, she said.
Sometimes, mental health issues result in a client receiving multiple citations for offenses such as loitering or disorderly conduct, Ashley said.
The agency cited in its report an example – a woman with severe mental health issues "routinely cited for retail theft from various stores for behavior that simply is out of her control."
Legal Action represented her in four cases that that were dismissed because those issues, saving the woman $1,500 in court charges.
In another case not related to mental health, a woman's identity was stolen by a relative, who then received several traffic tickets under the victim's name.
"LAW successfully obtained the dismissal of the citations and significantly, the client's driving privileges were not suspended," Legal Action said in the report.
In yet another instance, a woman for whom English is a second language was accused of shoplifting "and was unable to explain a simple misunderstanding due to the language barrier," LAW said.
"This client's story was particularly impactful, because she is an elderly woman who came to this country 25 years ago and had previously no contact with law enforcement. She endured a tremendous amount of stress and felt an immense amount of shame because of the ticket."
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