Mayor Tom Barrett's proposed budget is out this week, and the Wisconsin Justice Initiative is asking him to fund a lawyer for indigent defendants in Municipal Court.
Municipal Court judges' failure to fully inform defendants of their obligations, potential consequences, and rights if they are indigent, as the law requires, is a continuing problem.
From WJI's letter to Barrett:
The city attorney’s office has, unfortunately, failed to ensure that the Municipal Court judges are meeting their obligations. That means Municipal Court defendants, many of them who have no understanding of Municipal Court procedures or their own vulnerability to incarceration, are on their own.
It is simply imperative that Municipal Court defendants understand their rights and have a degree of legal representation. The apparent indifference by some elected representatives to adhering to state law has real impacts. Last year, there were a total of 2,483 commitment days served at the Milwaukee County Jail, according to the Milwaukee County Department of Administration. Most commitment days served at the jail originate in Milwaukee Municipal Court. It is extremely likely that most of the Milwaukee defendants who served these commitments were not given all the information they were entitled to under the law.
The Vera Institute of Justice, in “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America” laid out the consequences of even short-term incarceration:
"Research shows that spending as few as two days in jail can reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior, and worsen the health of the largely low-risk defendants who are incarcerated there—making jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system at considerable costs to the people involved and to society at large."
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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