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Is Being Poor a Crime?

New study shows how common it is to be jailed for failure to pay municipal fines in Milwaukee

Apr. 28, 2015
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We aren’t supposed to put people in jail simply for spitting in public, littering or disorderly conduct.

But each year thousands of Milwaukeeans spend time in jail—and potentially lose their driver’s licenses—for violating city ordinances. That’s especially true if you are an African American man in your twenties and thirties.

A new study from the nonprofit Justice Initiatives Institute (JII) 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 municipal fines—78%—were African American, and 84% 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.

These primarily poor, African American men were charged with and ultimately jailed for violating the city’s ordinances, civil offenses. These detainees were ticketed, failed to appear in court and pay their fines, perhaps multiple times, and then were issued warrants and picked up and jailed before going back in front of the court to resolve their case.

According to the JII report written in collaboration with UW-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute, Cited in Milwaukee: The Cost of Municipal Citations, 29% of the municipal citations that resulted in jail time were for disorderly conduct, 21% for traffic violations such as driving after license suspension or revocation, 12% for loitering, 9% for drug or alcohol violations, 9% for retail theft and 8% for resisting arrest. The remaining 12% of the tickets were for littering, building code violations and other civil violations.

And if you think that the threat of jailing someone for not paying municipal fines is a good revenue generator for the city, it’s not working with these individuals. The researchers found that just 19% of the judgments were paid by those who were detained on municipal violations.

A 2014 report from City Comptroller Martin Matson shows the city’s municipal court has $41.2 million in unpaid receivables on the books, or 28% of all of the city’s unpaid revenues, up from $35.5 million in 2009. The court can clear its unpaid fines after seven years, with authorization from the city attorney and Common Council.

Jailing these detainees isn’t cheap. The cost for time served for those solely detained on municipal violations was estimated to be $10.2 million during the period under study, more than the $6.5 million to be collected from these individuals.

But the city isn’t on the hook for these jail costs. Thanks to a decades-long agreement with Milwaukee County, county taxpayers pick up the tab for jailing city ordinance violators.

“We have a lot of marginalized people going through the system and the system isn’t getting a lot out of it, either,” said JII’s Marilyn Walczak, the lead researcher on the report who also convened a work group devoted to examining the workings of Milwaukee’s municipal court.


Is It Working?

Walczak explained how confusing the municipal court system is, especially if you are struggling with a mental health issue or are homeless with few resources. Walczak offered as examples municipal tickets that state the defendant is not required to appear in court, along with a monetary fine for the violation. That sends a mixed message about whether the defendant can challenge the ticket in court or must pay the fine outright.

“The system is set up under the assumption that you are guilty,” Walczak said. “How are you supposed to defend yourself, especially if you are not given the opportunity to speak to an attorney unless you have the means to hire one?”

Defendants in the municipal court system aren’t entitled to legal representation, as they are in the state courts. Nor are they legally screened for indigency, as they are in state courts. Impoverished defendants in the municipal court system bear the burden of offering up that information to a judge; it isn’t requested.  

Walczak said that although the statutes don’t require municipal court judges to ask a defendant about income status, “it would be the right thing for them to do.”

Jail isn’t the only way defendants can work off their fines. They’re allowed to do community service as an alternative punishment. But the JII study found that a mere 86 individuals who had been detained worked off their fines while doing community service. An additional 121 individuals partially completed community service to resolve their cases.

Walczak wondered if the use of jail to punish municipal violators was good public policy.

“If the system is set up to create a revenue stream, at least with this group [of detainees] it’s not doing a very good job,” Walczak said. “And if it’s supposed to improve public safety, I don’t know if it’s doing that, either.”


Marijuana Violations and Driver’s Licenses

The JII report also looked at two areas of high concern: marijuana possession cases and the impact of revoking a defendant’s driver’s license for failure to pay municipal fines.

City ordinances impose fines for possession of very small amounts of marijuana. The report found that marijuana violations resulted in 3,388 cases for the detained population from 2008-2013, or 57,526 days served in jail. The average amount owed by a detainee in a marijuana case was $348, high for a municipal citation, and 84% of those who were jailed for these violations were African American. Judges only offered detainees the option of doing community service in 36 marijuana cases. 

Common Council members are currently debating vastly reducing the fine for small-scale marijuana possession to cut down on jail time, as well as the ordinance’s impact on black men.

Also concerning is the impact of driver’s license revocations or suspensions as a court sanction. Wisconsin statutes allow municipal courts to take away the driver’s license from defendants who owe the court money even if their violations are unrelated to driving. The court can also prevent a defendant who owes money from obtaining a license.

UWM’s John Pawasarat, who collaborated on the JII study, said that it isn’t surprising that revoking one’s license for failure to pay a fine doesn’t deter that individual from driving. But if they get caught driving without a valid license, the price to be paid is steep—potential jail time. What’s more, employers screen out job seekers who don’t have a valid driver’s license, making employment difficult if not impossible for struggling Milwaukeeans.

Suspending a defendant’s license for failure to pay municipal fines “is probably the worst possible employment policy ever, when you combine putting them in jail, and breaking up their employment, and then adding in getting their license suspended if you have one,” Pawasarat said.


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