In a letter sent July 6, Wisconsin Justice Initiative called on Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and members of the Common Council to continue the Milwaukee Municipal Court Alternatives Program with JusticePoint and restore funding for the Municipal Court defense project staffed by Legal Action of Wisconsin.
The JusticePoint program assists low-income individuals facing municipal court forfeitures with satisfying community service obligations and finding needed treatment or other social services.
The legal defense project provides legal advice and attorney representation for low-income individuals facing municipal citations.
WJI's letter read as follows.
The city is set to collect millions of dollars in new sales tax revenue from people living in poverty while simultaneously stripping away basic legal services from those same impoverished residents.
The audacity of it is both pretty amazing and utterly appalling.
Poor people will pay more in taxes to support pensions for city employees but won’t have the help they need in Municipal Court. City officials are standing idly by while two judges terminate JusticePoint’s contract to run the Court Alternatives Services program that finds programs for defendants who need them and recommends alternative sentences, like community service, for those who cannot afford to pay forfeitures.
There will be something in place of JusticePoint, but it will definitely be something less — other organizations simply do not have the experience or resources that JusticePoint has.
The poor people who will pay more so city employees can be sure of their pensions also won’t have a lawyer to defend them in Municipal Court, either. The city did not renew funding for Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Municipal Court defense project, which provides legal representation for impoverished defendants who cannot adequately represent themselves.
These two moves mean poor people, besides shelling out more in taxes, will pay more in forfeitures and fees they should not face and cannot afford.
Whose version of justice is this?
The new taxes collected from poor people are sure to be far, far more than the $600,000 combined cost of the two Municipal Court programs being axed.
Some aldermen have said there is nothing they can do about Municipal Court’s JusticePoint contract, but that is not true. The Common Council itself can enter into a new contract with JusticePoint, save the alternatives program, and demand some sorely needed accountability from the court.
The Legal Action funding should be renewed (and increased) primarily as a simple matter of justice for defendants and to ensure the judges, who operate without scrutiny from the mayor’s office, the Common Council, or their supervisors in the Wisconsin Court System, adhere to the law when hearing cases and treat defendants fairly and with dignity.
The city clearly needs to raise revenue. But it is about to increase taxes on the poor while subjecting them to increased legal jeopardy, with all of its ramifications and collateral consequences.
Is this really the best that Milwaukee can do?
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