By Alexandria Staubach
Milwaukee Municipal Court has terminated a long-term court diversion program contract without identifying a successor or a plan for continuity of services.
JusticePoint facilitated the City of Milwaukee’s Municipal Court Alternatives Program (MCAP) for 40 years. MCAP staff provide information and recommendations to Milwaukee Municipal Court for alternatives to forfeitures and jail for those who are unable to pay or who need specialized services.
A May 15 termination letter calls JusticePoint’s discharge a “termination for convenience.” Questions immediately arose about what will happen to the program’s clients on July 12, the day after JusticePoint's contract ends, but those questions had to await the return of a court administrator who was out of the office.
“Milwaukee Municipal Court’s intervention/alternatives program will continue, just not with the current vendor,” Sheldyn Himle, chief court administrator for Milwaukee Municipal Court, told Wisconsin Justice Initiative on Tuesday.
WJI asked follow-up questions about whether the court has identified a new vendor, whether the court anticipates the vendor will be able to assume services on July 12, and what will occur in the interim if not.
The court did not answer these questions by the time of this blog post.
Municipal citations are often issued to people experiencing poverty, mental health crisis, disability, and substance abuse issues. Many are unhoused. Many have disabilities that make navigating the court system exceedingly difficult. From 2002 to 2022, JusticePoint provided services to 61,975 individuals, resulting in 146,202 hours of community service completed and 444,984 days of jail avoided for the community and taxpayers.
“I think it's important to remember that the fines levied against the clients we work with in this program were never going to be collected by the City in the first place,” said Ed Gordon, JusticePoint’s chief operating officer and co-founder, in an email to WJI. “These are not people of means choosing not to pay their fines. This isn't about a reduction of revenue to the city. In fact, it's quite the opposite — this program recognizes that those in our community who would never be able to pay their fines in the first place can be 'held accountable' for their actions by taking steps to improve their own situations. Success here, and we have four decades of data to support this, represents reducing future police and court involvement for these folks. This program saves taxpayer money and strives to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our city. That is what we're losing with the elimination of this program.”
In a June 8 letter to the Milwaukee Common Council and its Judiciary and Legislation Committee, former Milwaukee Municipal Judge Jim Gramling said he would like to see JusticePoint reinstated and its MCAP work continued. “They have provided excellent service to the City and its more disadvantaged citizens. Their staff has been competent and committed from my first day in court in 1986,” he wrote.
Gramling noted that many municipal court defendants “are part of disadvantaged groups within our community: the poor, those addicted to drugs and alcohol, those suffering from mental health issues.” He said it was essential to him when he was judge that the municipal justice system “reach(ed) out to them at every possible opportunity to prevent them from being ground up in that system. The MCAP was the vehicle for that.”
JusticePoint plans to continue to provide services through July 11. Unless the City or a new vendor provides similar services on July 12, disruption is likely for clients who have not and cannot complete community service by then, and some current clients will have no documentation for the court at their next hearing, according to JusticePoint.
“JusticePoint is deeply concerned about the future of clients that have traditionally had opportunities to receive alternatives to the municipal court process,” Nick Sayner, JusticePoint’s chief executive officer and co-founder, told WJI. “We work with the most vulnerable populations in the City who receive citations usually related to unresolved social service needs. Individuals who are experiencing housing insecurity, poverty, substance use, mental health issues, and trauma are currently offered treatment alternatives, referrals, and/or community service options. As of July 11th, those options will no longer be available, and all individuals who would have been eligible for alternatives will be expected to pay their fines or be sent to collections. This process is simply unnecessarily punitive and can place people into an unrelenting system of debt collection.”
WJI joined a coalition to save JusticePoint’s MCAP. The 24-member coalition includes legal and community organizations serving the most vulnerable populations in Milwaukee, often in tandem with JusticePoint’s services.
“Milwaukee Municipal Court has statutory and constitutional obligations to these defendants — JusticePoint helps the municipal court comply with the law,” wrote the coalition in a letter to Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and the Milwaukee Common Council. “It is shocking that Milwaukee Municipal Court would suddenly cancel the contract for such an invaluable program. The contract was canceled without cause and was described as a ‘termination for convenience’, with an effective date of July 11, 2023. The Court has provided no explanation for what is to happen to the hundreds of individuals currently being served by JusticePoint.”
Milwaukee Ald. Mark Borkowski has scheduled a hearing before the Common Council’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee Meeting on June 12 at 11:00 a.m. in room 301-B of Milwaukee City Hall.
The meeting is open to the public. The meeting agenda was recently amended to indicate the committee may also go into closed session at some point regarding the matter.
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