[Pnews] Does Milwaukee Run a Debtor’s Prison?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 5 12:18:48 EDT 2015

  Does Milwaukee Run a Debtor’s Prison?

Study finds Milwaukee Municipal Court jails thousands of poor people for 
failing to pay fines. Why?

By Bruce Murphy <http://urbanmilwaukee.com/author/bruce/> - Apr 30th, 
2015 12:24 pm

*Marilyn Walczak* <http://urbanmilwaukee.com/people/marilyn-walczak/> 
has worked in the criminal justice system for decades and has run the 
non-profit Justice Initiatives Institute, based in Milwaukee and 
Madison, for some years. Late in 2010, she was involved in a 
broadly-based effort to reform the Milwaukee circuit courts through what 
is called an “evidence-based decision making system,” which mapped the 
entire system at all points to see how it functioned and how it might be 

One part of the puzzle was the county jail, with many detainees who are 
there simply for failure to pay a municipal court fine. These fines, 
believe it or not, could be for offenses as minor as spitting in public, 
littering or removal of contents from a waste bin.

Walczak’s group eventually commissioned *John Pawasarat* 
<http://urbanmilwaukee.com/people/john-pawasarat/> and the UW-Milwaukee 
Employment & Training Institute 
to study the municipal court system. Pawasarat’s research on driver’s 
license suspensions was recently featured in a two-part story 
by National Public Radio.

His study <http://www4.uwm.edu/eti/2015/CitedInMilwaukee.pdf> of 
Milwaukee’s municipal courts was a bit like turning over a rock and 
finding a squalid mini-world with its own peculiar patterns and 
punishments. Pawasarat concentrated on Branch A of the muni court, which 
tends to deal with those violators who end up getting detained in court. 
What he uncovered might make a novel by Dickens.

The study found that from 2008-2013, 9,277 individuals did some jail 
time for failing to pay their municipal citations, with judgments 
totaling $6.5 million. The majority of those detained for failing to pay 
their fines—78 percent—were African American, and 84 percent of the 
detainees were men. Almost half of them live in the city’s five poorest 
zip codes. The majority are unemployed, while those who are employed 
work at low-wage jobs.

The idea of charging these predominantly poor people millions of dollars 
in fines is, by itself, quite disturbing. But it becomes all the more 
dismaying when their failure to pay results results in imprisonment. The 
study found the average person incarcerated had spent an average of 8 
days in jail, for a total of 98,824 days spent in jail by the population 

“The jailed population was heavily concentrated from the neighborhoods 
with higher numbers of low-income residents and of residents of color,” 
the study found. “83% of those detained… had residences in the city’s 11 
poorest ZIP code neighborhoods.”

But it gets worse. The system is actually a huge failure that rarely 
succeeds in collecting these fines. The population studied had 66,623 
citations/cases with judgments totaling $15.7 million in the 
nearly-six-year-period studied, but $12.5 million or 85 percent of that 
money was never paid.

But it gets worse. The system actually loses money for the taxpayers. 
“The County jail costs to taxpayers were $10.2 million to detain 
individuals who failed to pay $5.7 million to the City of Milwaukee for 
municipal tickets.” (In essence, the county is paying for the city’s 
failed system.)

But it gets even more dismaying. The municipal court judges can employ 
alternatives to fines, using an alternative sanction like requiring 
community service. But this alternative is rarely used, despite the fact 
that offenders have a higher compliance rate with community service than 
paying fines.

A big chunk of those jailed for nonpayment of fines was for people 
charged with driving with a suspended driver’s license. The study 
included 13,602 traffic cases that went to municipal court and 89 
percent were people charged with driving while under suspension. But 
very few of these suspended licenses were for unsafe driving: 82 percent 
of the underlying suspensions, the study found, weren’t for traffic 
offenses, but for failure to pay fines.

The study offers an appalling factoid: Under state law, you can have 
your license suspended for six months for reckless driving, nine months 
for first offense drunken driving, 12 months for hit and run with a 
person injured in the accident — and /24 months/ for failure to pay a 
ticket for a burnt-out tail light.

Up to two-thirds of African-American men of working age don’t have a 
drivers license in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, Pawasarat 
has found. Retired Milwaukee Municipal Court 
Judge***Jim Gramling <http://urbanmilwaukee.com/people/jim-gramling>*** 
was so appalled by the problem of poor people losing their drivers 
licenses that he has worked with lawyers and court officials to help 
start the solution-oriented Center for Driver’s License Recovery and 
Employability. “What we see constantly here at the center are drivers 
who have accumulated a series of tickets that are directly related to 
their lack of income,” he told National Public Radio 

A study in 2013 from the American Association of Motor Vehicle 
Administrators raised concerns that police and state and local motor 
vehicle officials find too much of their time and budget is tied up 
going after people with suspensions for minor lawbreaking that has 
nothing to do with safe driving.

“They want to focus on the people who pose a risk to the general 
population that’s driving on the roadway. And those are usually the 
people who are suspended for … things like hit-and-run crashes, DUIs, 
unsafe speed, reckless driving — those actions that we as a society 
consider severe and dangerous on the roadway,” said the study’s author 
*Robert Eger*, in the NPR story.

Nationally, the group estimates, as many as three-fourths of suspended 
and revoked drivers continue to drive. In Milwaukee, given the lack of 
transit to where jobs are located in outlying suburbs, a car is often 
required for anyone who wants to work. And so those with license 
suspensions drive anyway and get caught, racking up yet more fines or 
jail time. It’s a vicious cycle.

Because the municipal courts typically deal with minor offenses — 
traffic cases, disorderly conduct, trespassing in a building, public 
drinking, vandalism, possession of marijuana, excessive noise, 
aggressive panhandling — those coming to municipal court are rarely 
assigned an attorney and may not know their rights.

“If a person can’t pay their fine in 60 days (as required), they might 
be afraid to go back to court,” Walczak notes. And failure to appear in 
court is often handled by sentencing them to jail. “The system is set up 
under the assumption that you are guilty.”

If you’ve ever attended municipal court, you’d know what a zoo it can 
be. Judges are processing tons of cases quite quickly. It’s a complex, 
often overwhelmed system and it may not be simple to reform. Walczak 
notes that state statutes may need to be changed. But she adds that the 
statutes do allow considerable discretion for judges.

Walczak says her group has shared any data before publication with 
municipal court judges and is hoping for cooperation and constructive 
dialogue. “We’re not pointing a finger at them. We’re looking at the 
whole system, to map out what we are doing and how can we do it better.”

To judge from this study, we could hardly be doing it worse.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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