“Municipal courts, as we are fond of saying, are not broken. They are a coercive apparatus perfectly suited to limiting the mobility (physical, economic, and political) of racialized subjects. They will produce what they are designed to produce until they are abolished.” – Brendan Roediger
Milwaukee exercised its option to create a municipal court in 1975. Since that time, Milwaukee Municipal Court has played an important role in legitimizing police, expanding the scope of the legal punishment system, and has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from Milwaukee residents, primarily Black residents who are experiencing poverty. In 2015, several of Milwaukee’s Common Council members publicly considered abolishing the municipal court. This piece will explore the harms perpetrated by the municipal court and show that Milwaukee Municipal Court must be abolished.
Part I: Milwaukee Municipal Court Engages in Racialized Wealth Extraction and Creates a Self-perpetuating Punishment System
Municipal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over “offenses” for which the City seeks to impose a financial penalty. Municipal citations function as “a kind of regressive tax, creating perverse incentives for low-level courts that increasingly rely on fines and fees to fund their own operations.” In 2016, MMC made $4,764,377 in “revenues.” In 2022, Milwaukee Municipal Court projects a revenue of $3,660,000.
At the Common Council’s request in 2016, Milwaukee Municipal Court provided a demographic breakdown of the races and zip codes with outstanding debt. The results should shock everyone to action. Nearly 75% of outstanding debt in Milwaukee Municipal Court is owed by Black people, most likely living in the zip codes with the highest rates of poverty. In 2016, that meant that Black people owed over 23 million dollars to Milwaukee Municipal Court to pay outstanding citation judgments.
Unfortunately, diverting wealth from the Black community is only half of the picture. Unpaid citations (parking citations and other non-criminal tickets) regularly make up the largest portion of Milwaukee’s uncollected debt. Milwaukee Municipal Court’s collection rate is the lowest in the City, collecting only about 20% of what is owed.
In 2020, people in Milwaukee had outstanding debt of over $34 million in unpaid parking citations. In 2020, people in Milwaukee had nearly 30 million in outstanding municipal court judgments.
Milwaukee Municipal Court judges choose to automatically order a driver’s license suspension, registration suspension, or arrest warrant for every overdue judgment in Milwaukee Municipal Court. The power of the police expands exponentially when Milwaukee Municipal Court uses these tools to collect outstanding debt. Police power to stop, search, arrest and/or ticket people is expanded significantly because of the suspensions and warrants ordered by Milwaukee Municipal Court.
When the US Department of Justice wrote its damning report of police and municipal court practices in Ferguson, Missouri, it was especially disturbed by Ferguson Municipal Court’s use of warrants and driver’s license suspensions as wealth extraction tools, instead of tools intended to promote public safety. US DOJ wrote,
“Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees. Under state law, a failure to appear in municipal court on a traffic charge involving a moving violation also results in a license suspension.”
Warrants and driver’s license suspensions are heavily used by the judges in Milwaukee Municipal Court.
As one advocate wrote in Missouri:
“Warrants themselves remain the most underappreciated aspect of the municipal court’s expressive role in police bureaucracy. It is not uncommon, even after the purported municipal court reforms in Missouri, for a community in this state to average more than one warrant per household… My clients accept default judgments in civil cases, avoid voting at municipal buildings, and alter their driving routes, to name just a few examples. At the same time, these warrants legitimize virtually all police activity in Black neighborhoods.”
These warrants result from disproportionate police contact and then increase the likelihood that an individual will have further negative police contact.
“Understood in this way, revenue generation creates both a primary market and a secondary market for police violence. The issuance of the initial citation (the primary market) and the stopping of people to enforce a warrant based on that citation (the secondary market) are police contact events that can culminate in arrest, incarceration, and violence.”
Beyond the racialized wealth extraction, Black people therefore suffer terrible consequences of Milwaukee Municipal Court’s debt collection practices. To collect debt, Milwaukee Municipal Court ordered 48,000 driver’s license suspensions in 2014 alone. Young Black men in Milwaukee were 10x more likely than young white men to have debt-based driver’s license suspensions. In 2018, Operating While Suspended was the most common ticket issued in Milwaukee Municipal Court. Even right-wing ideologue Grover Norquist finds this to be distasteful, urging states to repeal laws providing court authority to use driver’s license suspensions to collect debt, as 23 other states have done in the last 5 years.
In 2011, Milwaukee Municipal Court issued warrants on over 40% of its cases. In 2020, Milwaukee Municipal Court had over 56,000 active warrants caused by nonpayment of tickets. In the past, people in Milwaukee County have served time for being unable to pay municipal citations. A study showed that between 2008-2013, over 9,000 people served time in an essential debtor’s prison in Milwaukee County for nonpayment of tickets—78% of people incarcerated for nonpayment of municipal citations in Milwaukee County jails were Black. In 2020, Black people were 9.5 times more likely to be stopped by Milwaukee Police than white people and Hispanic and Latinx people were almost three times as likely to be pulled over. The US Supreme Court has determined that even a low-level traffic warrant can act to purify unlawful police stops, justifying illegal police stops after the fact. The police and municipal court system legitimizes and feeds itself.
PartII: Milwaukee Municipal Court Expands the Legal Punishment System
Municipal courts are an important component of mass criminalization in Wisconsin. Mass criminalization is the criminalization of relatively non-serious behavior or activities, and the myriad enforcement mechanisms used by state actors. Many municipal tickets are referred to as “quasi criminal” because of their criminal statute counterparts. Because many municipal citations could therefore have been issued as criminal charges, defenders of municipal courts falsely argue that municipal courts accomplish “diversion” or “decriminalization.”
However, statistics show that Wisconsin’s criminal legal system grew exponentially in the decades since the establishment of Milwaukee’s municipal court, even during years when crime rates dropped substantially. Wisconsin’s criminal legal system does not have capacity to prosecute even the wide-range of conduct it currently aspires to punish with criminal conviction, supervision, and imprisonment. Therefore, municipal courts act as a “release valve,” providing a streamlined option for punishing an even wider range of conduct. As such, Milwaukee Municipal Court is one of many legal punishment system “net wideners.” Net-widening refers to tools or reforms that make it easier to sweep people into legal punishment systems.
“Primarily, it makes it possible to reach more [people alleged to have violated the law] by simplifying the charging process and eliminating counsel, along with other forms of due process. But it also heightens the impact of the net by turning to supervision and fines as indirect, long-term constraints on defendant behavior, and by extending the informal consequences of a citation or conviction deep into [defendant’s] social and economic lives. The widening net, moreover, is not colorblind: decriminalization risks further racializing the selection process as police are empowered to stop and cite young black men more freely without the constraints of criminal adjudication or the threat of defense counsel.”
Let’s look at the numbers. Milwaukee Municipal Court was created in 1975. In the time since Milwaukee Municipal Court was created, Wisconsin’s jail population skyrocketed by over 550% and Wisconsin’s prison population skyrocketed by nearly 700%. Rates of probation and parole similarly skyrocketed in Wisconsin.
A study of Wisconsin’s municipal courts and their revenue was conducted in 1980. At that time, Wisconsin’s Municipal Courts processed 434,449 cases. The study found that Wisconsin’s municipal courts collected approximately $11 million dollars in revenue annually while costing local governments only approximately $2 million dollars to run. In 2016, Wisconsin’s criminal courts processed 113,043 criminal cases. Circuit Courts opened another 477,560 forfeiture cases in 2016. Wisconsin’s municipal court doubled the citation prosecution capacity in the state. In 2016, Wisconsin’s municipal courts processed over 517,000 cases. In 2022, Milwaukee Municipal Court projects a revenue of $3,660,000.
In the 1990’s, Wisconsin’s prison admission rate more than doubled, raising the prison population from 7,000 in 1990 to more than 20,000 by the end of 1999. In the 1990’s, Milwaukee Municipal Court’s caseload grew, mirroring the growth of the criminal legal system. The illegitimacy of these systems is laid bare when it is understood that during this same period, crime rates fell substantially. We are always hesitant to cite crime statistics, because they are defined and collected by law enforcement agencies, whose processes are inherently flawed and skewed to support the status quo. The dramatic decline in this instance does suggest that the data reflects some kind of reality. Municipal court has not been a forum for diversion but instead has been a more cost-effective way to expand Wisconsin’s legal punishment system.
When Milwaukee’s police know prosecutors will refuse prosecution of certain conduct (by rejecting merit, acknowledging the lack of resources, raising issues of proof to reach the criminal prosecution and conviction standards), police can choose to simply issue a citation. Even while eliminating protections, municipal courts maintain many collateral consequences of convictions. For example, municipal court convictions are “offenses” that create grounds for legal job discrimination in Wisconsin, no different than a felony conviction. Municipal convictions “derail a defendant’s employment, education, and immigration status.”
Municipal courts have widened the scope of the legal punishment system in Wisconsin, similar to other net-widening institutions that contribute to mass criminalization or mass incarceration. As every aspect of the criminal legal system grew exponentially, municipal courts were added to the mix in Milwaukee, creating a new level of punishment. The citation offenses prosecuted in Milwaukee Municipal Court may be called “quasi-criminal” at times, but the punishment is financial and criminal protections do not apply. In municipal court, the vast majority of defendants are found guilty by “default judgment,” meaning that they are found guilty when they miss any single court appearance.
Take, for instance, Milwaukee’s Disorderly Conduct ordinance, which prohibits a person from engaging in a wide-range of vague conduct: “It shall be unlawful for any person to engage, in a public or private place, in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, unreasonably loud, or otherwise disorderly conduct under circumstances in which such conduct tends to cause or provoke a disturbance.” Milwaukee Police, having intruded on someone’s life, need only justify that intrusion by issuing a Disorderly Conduct citation. The person who receives the Disorderly Conduct citation must then report to Milwaukee Municipal Court if they wish to defend themselves. Upon missing any court date, a defendant will be found guilty by default. If they have a trial, the judge need only find that there was clear and satisfactory evidence to make a finding of guilt. If the judge is unable to make a finding of guilt, the judge may still “conform the charge to the evidence” and instead make a finding of guilt of some other charge. Therefore, if someone is charged with Disorderly Conduct and successfully defends themselves at trial, they may still be convicted of a parking violation, a curfew citation, or any other of the hundreds of ordinances on the books. Defending yourself in municipal court is a time consuming and frustrating experience with little hope of ultimate success.
Part III: Milwaukee Municipal Court Legitimizes Police Conduct, Regardless of its Legitimacy
Because citation enforcement activities make up a large percentage of police time, citation enforcement both funds police enforcement activities and helps to justify the existence of police forces that swallow municipal budgets. Studies show that police generally spend a very small percentage of their time responding to violent crime. Most police officers make no more than one felony arrest each year. This national truth is reflective of the reality of policing in Wisconsin municipalities as well. For example, in a random sampling of body camera footage of Monona Police officers, researchers summarized the interactions as follows: 3 domestic disturbances, a threats call, a traffic accident, 2 traffic stops, a call regarding suspected prostitution, a call for a person reportedly running a business out of his home, theft from vehicle that included credit card fraud, 2 calls for warrants (one looking for a person with a warrant and one on a traffic stop with the driver having a warrant), a photo identification line-up, an accident, and a dog complaint. “The calls included contact with both men and women of various ages. They also involved people of color, a person with dementia and anger issues, and another person who was admittedly struggling with mental health issues.” A large proportion of police time is spent engaging in citation enforcement activities—or, seen another way, spent engaging in conduct justified by issuance of citations.
These low-level citations create a justification for a police officer having responded to a situation or for having disrupted an individual’s life. The citation, and the municipal court that adjudicates that citation (usually by default in the defendant’s absence), legitimize the police intrusion. The more a community is visible, surveilled, or regarded as dangerous or aberrant, the more vulnerable they are to police intrusion and punishment. Someone who is unhoused is at constant risk of police interaction and punishment. It is no surprise that the municipal court system reflects massive racial disparities which are simultaneously driven by and reinforce racialized policing.
“Routine street-level encounters with police officers over minor ordinance violations carry the very real potential for death. At the same time, they carry the near certainty of lost time and continuing disruptions of daily life. Just as importantly, municipal courts legitimize police activity. Policing is a coercive project, but the maintenance of order requires the management of consent and, of course, education about life and law and order. There must be an expressive component of the police bureaucracy. Municipal courts fill this void… Officer Darren Wilson would likely have told Michael Brown to ‘get the fuck out of the street’ whether or not there was a jaywalking ordinance, but the ordinance and the potential for its enforcement cast a shadow of legitimacy across the lethal interaction.”
Milwaukee Municipal Court acts as a tool to confirm police legitimacy and has expanded the reach of the legal punishment system even further than its already massive scope by convicting people of millions of additional violations. These violations likely never would have been tried in criminal court, where the state would have had to provide an attorney, meet a higher standard of proof for conviction, and honor other criminal process protections.
Part IV: Next Steps for Abolishing Milwaukee Municipal Court and Reducing its Harms
Abolishing Milwaukee’s municipal court is relatively easy, with a straightforward procedure laid out in the statutes. To abolish Milwaukee Municipal Court, the Common Council would have to pass an ordinance and file it with the Director of State Courts by October 1, 2022.
Done incorrectly, there are downsides to abolishing a municipal court. The purpose must be to reduce unnecessary and harmful police contact with the community, particularly the communities of color suffering most acutely under the current paradigm. The purpose must be to stop racialized wealth extraction, not to shift its forum.
It is worth noting that, if citation prosecution is merely shifted to the circuit court, court fees will be higher and a portion of the debt will go to the State School Fund, the State General Fund, or the State Department of Administration. On the other hand, because a much lower percentage of money is retained directly by the municipality, perverse and predatory enforcement incentives would be reduced. Furthermore, because Milwaukee County Circuit Court uses civil judgments to collect unpaid citation debt, there would likely be a drastic reduction in driver’s license suspensions, registration suspensions, and warrants ordered in the name of collecting unpaid citation debt.
It is important that everyone include citations/tickets/forfeiture cases in their abolitionist framework. Remember how much police time is spent on non-criminal enforcement and therefore how much police intrusion is legitimized by issuing citations. To reduce the harms caused by Milwaukee Municipal Court, take action on a local level or a statewide level:
- Urge your Milwaukee Alderperson to pass an ordinance abolishing Milwaukee Municipal Court. Point your common council member to the shocking demographics of the municipal court’s outstanding debt and raise the terrible harms caused by the tools Milwaukee Municipal Court judges use to collect that debt.
- Urge your state representative and state senator to repeal state statutes providing court authority to collect citation debt through the use of warrants, incarceration, driver’s license suspensions, and registration suspensions. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike have agreed on this issue in other states—23 other states have repealed these laws in the last 5 years. If Mississippi, West Virginia, Texas, California, New York, and Kentucky can repeal these laws, Wisconsin can do it too. This effort has support from nonpartisan organizations and organizations from across the political spectrum, like the ACLU, ALEC, Americans for Prosperity, the Brennan Center for Justice, and Voces de la Frontera. Follow the work of the Fines & Fees Justice Center, especially the Free to Drive campaign, to learn more.
This article was submitted to us by a writer who would prefer to be anonymous.