Indigent Municipal Court defendants in Milwaukee are supposed to get certain sentencing options from the judges. Not everyone in Milwaukee can afford to pay a fine and there are alternatives for those who can’t.
The judges are supposed to explain at sentencing what those alternatives are. It’s the law.
Except Milwaukee Municipal Court judges don’t routinely explain the sentencing options, and don’t ask defendants if they can afford to pay their fines. We have the audio to prove it that we’ve posted here: http://www.wjiinc.org/blog/listen-to-a-milwaukee-municipal-court-judge-ignore-the-law.
The Wisconsin Justice Initiative believes that an independent defense lawyer is needed at Municipal Court, and the Common Council’s Finance and Personnel Committee will vote today on whether the city should fund one. Yes, the city should — it already pays cops to write tickets, city attorneys to prosecute cases, and a collection agency to keep that revenue flowing, but provides defendants with nothing except poorly worded handouts. Defendants are expected to go it alone, even when they face jail time. The system is designed to transfer money from defendants’ pockets to the city’s coffers. It’s been very profitable for the city, pulling in $14.4 million in net revenue over the last five years, according to city budget documents.
The defense lawyer contemplated in the proposal being considered today would represent indigent defendants who can’t afford their own lawyer. We believe the presence of a lawyer also would help keep the Municipal Court judges a lot closer to meeting the requirements of the law than they are now. Once a lawyer insists that judges start adhering to the law for some clients, chances improve that judges will do that for other clients as well. An independent lawyer also can help the judges improve the printed information that Municipal Court gives to defendants.
In the long run, everyone wins if there is an independent lawyer in court. Indigent defendants are represented and don’t get sentenced to pay fines they can never, ever afford to pay. The city stops wasting money and effort chasing down people who simply don’t have the cash the city wants from them. And Milwaukee gets off the downward slide to becoming another “fine-‘em-for-funding Ferguson.”
Again, the committee vote on the budget is today. The full Common Council vote is Nov. 4. Please take a moment to contact your alderman and ask him or her to support funding for an independent lawyer for Municipal Court. Thanks!