JusticePoint continues jail alternatives work as Milwaukee tries to cancel contract

A Wisconsin Court of Appeals judge ordered the city of Milwaukee to continue paying JusticePoint as a lawsuit appeal continues, but the city lacks a plan to replace its incarceration alternative services if it succeeds in canceling the group's contract

Associated Press

November 15, 2023 • Southeast Region

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A letter sign reading Milwaukee County Courthouse is affixed to the façade of a building with granite masonry, exterior metal light fixtures, square trash containers, and a door with a door topped by a carved inscription reading Justice and a tympanum with a bas relief sculpture.

The Milwaukee County Courthouse is seen on Nov. 8, 2023, in Milwaukee. Circuit Court Judge J.D. Watts in October dismissed JusticePoint's lawsuit that aimed to prevent the city of Milwaukee from canceling its contract to provide incarceration alternatives services. But a Wisconsin Court of Appeals order allowed the contract to continue during JusticePoint's appeal. (Credit: Jonmaesha Betran / Wisconsin Watch)

Wisconsin Watch

By Jonmaesha Beltran, Wisconsin Watch

This article was first published by Wisconsin Watch.

After starting to move out of its Milwaukee Municipal Court building office earlier this month, JusticePoint, Inc., has learned it can continue providing incarceration alternatives to residents while a lawsuit it filed against the city of Milwaukee continues.

The nonprofit, which has spent years serving low-income Milwaukeeans and those with mental health and addiction challenges, sued the city in July after two Municipal Court judges sought to cancel its Municipal Court Alternatives Program contract without public explanation.

On Nov. 6 Judge Joseph Donald of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued an order requiring the city to continue paying JusticePoint for its services while the nonprofit appeals a lower court’s dismissal of its lawsuit.

Milwaukee’s Municipal Court would have otherwise lacked a diversion program for the first time since the 1980s.

“We feel a tremendous obligation to the clients we serve,” said Nick Sayner, JusticePoint’s co-founder and CEO. “We serve some of the most vulnerable people in the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County as a whole. And the Municipal Court’s system and structure can do a lot of damage to that population if the courts are not aware of the full context that an individual or defendant is dealing with.”

But the contract the city seeks to cancel lasts through only 2023.

No plan to replace JusticePoint’s services

JusticePoint program director Sue Eckhart has spent most of her decades-long career supporting indigent residents and others who landed in court because they could not pay fines for civil infractions, such as illegal parking or loitering.

Nov. 3 was the second day this year on which Eckhart thought it was her last leading the alternatives program.

A Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge had dismissed JusticePoint’s lawsuit in October, and a temporary order that delayed the ruling’s effect was set to expire. Eckhart worried many would end up “falling through the cracks.”

“We had left so many individuals kind of just hanging,” she said.

Sue Eckhart poses for a portrait while sitting in a room with a brick wall in the background.

Sue Eckhart is the Municipal Court Alternatives director for the nonprofit JusticePoint, Inc., which offers low-income residents who struggle to pay civil fines options for avoiding jail. Services include referring residents to community service or mental health treatment. Eckhart poses for a portrait on July 13, 2023. (Credit: Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch)

But Donald’s ruling offered Eckhart some relief.

Municipal Court officials said they have not identified a vendor to replace JusticePoint, which has contracted with the city since 2015.

“No final decisions will be made until the current contractual obligation is finished,” Municipal Court’s Chief Administrator Sheldyn Himle told Wisconsin Watch in an October email, adding that judges may directly refer defendants who cannot pay fines to alternative services without a vendor’s help.

Some judges have already stopped referring defendants to the nonprofit and are instead trying to monitor community service efforts themselves, leading to confusion, Eckhart said.

“We’re getting calls from people who don’t know how to do it, don’t know where to go, want some help from us,” Eckhart said. “And then we’re seeing people that just don’t come back to show that they’ve done it for the court.”

Eckhart worries removing JusticePoint from the Municipal Court would lead to more arrest warrants as fewer people return to handle their infractions.

JusticePoint was serving clients in 123 open cases as of Nov. 3. Some had court dates set for next year and were referred by Judge Molly Gena, Eckhart said.

During a June Milwaukee Common Council committee meeting, Gena said terminating the contract would make her job “a lot harder.” She said she could order people to pay fines but can’t address root causes that will send them back to court.

“It was indicated that maybe the other judges have a plan — I don’t,” she said, referring to the prospect of losing JusticePoint’s services.

The nonprofit’s clients in years past had a 52% community service completion rate compared with the 35% completion rate of those facing judge-ordered community service, former Municipal Court Judge Derek Mosley said during a 2018 Milwaukee Common Council committee meeting.

JusticePoint says its role in forging personal relationships and connecting people to transportation, jobs and other resources increases the odds of completion.

Wisconsin Fair Dealership law at issue

In suing to save its contract, JusticePoint argued the city violated the Wisconsin Fair Dealership law, which protects “dealers” — typically business owners — whose economic livelihood could be imperiled by “grantors,” who, through a contract, give dealers the ability to sell or distribute goods or services. The law prohibits a grantor from terminating a relationship with a dealer without good cause, proper notice and the ability to fix any issue at hand.

Circuit Court Judge J.D. Watts ruled in October that the Fair Dealership law did not apply to the case. JusticePoint and the city had forged a typical vendor-vendee relationship without a community of interest and no interdependence to merit fair dealership protection, Watts ruled.

A lightbox sign reading "Judge J.D. Watts" and "414" is mounted on chains and a poll above a door on right side of a room.

The chambers of Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge J.D. Watts are seen on Nov. 8, 2023, in Milwaukee. Watts dismissed a JusticePoint lawsuit challenging the city of Milwaukee’s cancellation of its contract. Watts wrote that JusticePoint lacked protection from the Wisconsin Fair Dealership law. But an appeals court ruling allows JusticePoint to continue incarceration alternatives services while it appeals. (Credit: Jonmaesha Betran / Wisconsin Watch)

Jeff Mandell, JusticePoint’s attorney in the lawsuit, disagreed.

“It struck me as really bizarre that the Circuit Court was so invested in insisting that these services really had nothing to do with the city, and even the city was not willing to say that,” Mandell said. “The city had other arguments about why it thought the dealership law shouldn’t apply here.”

Assistant City Attorney Kathryn Block, who is representing the city in court, declined to comment.

Still unclear in the dispute: why the city seeks to terminate the contract.

Two Municipal Court judges, Phil Chavez and Valarie Hill, recommended terminating the contract before Gena was elected to the court in April, Wisconsin Watch and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service previously reported.

The city sought to cancel the contract under a “convenience” clause, rather than for cause, allowing it to be halted for any reason.

Neither the judges nor anyone else have publicly explained the move. But the two judges told Himle, the court’s chief administrator, they “lost faith” in JusticePoint over the longstanding practice of sharing citations with attorneys at Legal Action of Wisconsin, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to people with low incomes, according to a May 15 email between Sayner and Himle.

The city attorney’s office had advised JusticePoint to share citations during pilot phases of a program to help people with low incomes find legal representation, Sayner responded to Himle at the time. Sayner also told Himle that JusticePoint hadn’t received broader feedback from the court for several years, but was open to it as long as the program’s principles remained consistent.

Sayner told Wisconsin Watch that JusticePoint partners with systems that often treat defendants, victims and witnesses unfairly. The lack of transparency about the contract cancellation “brings up all of the concerns that the public and the community generally have about these systems,” he said.

The city acknowledged in a legal filing that the Municipal Court Alternatives Program “has generally been successful and has assisted many residents and generally streamlined the process for many people the Municipal Court serves.”

“The city had reasons to terminate the contract,” Block said in court without specifying. But such reasons were not relevant to whether the city had the right to do so, she added.

Residents express concern

A coalition of 24 local organizations in the summer of 2023 urged the city’s Common Council and Mayor Cavalier Johnson to save the program, but officials say neither has control over the contract. The council funds but does not oversee the program, allocating $487,000 for JusticePoint’s services this year.

Art Heitzer, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild’s Milwaukee chapter, criticized the city for using tax dollars to defend the cancellation in court.

“Fighting this lawsuit and spending money and potentially running up attorney fees that they have to pay on the other side if JusticePoint wins is not in the best interest of the city or the taxpayers,” Heitzer said.

Johnson declined to comment.

“The selection, deployment and accountability of this service rests entirely with Municipal Court administrators and the elected judges. The mayor will not be commenting on JusticePoint or successor programming because he has not been involved in any aspect of the work,” spokesperson Jeff Fleming wrote in an email.

A concrete building with small windows is fronted by a facade with square pillars, a letter sign reading "City of Milwaukee Municipal Court," and smaller signs designating parking spots, with a flagpole, parked cars and another building in the background.

The Milwaukee Municipal Court is seen on July 18, 2023. The nonprofit JusticePoint, Inc., runs the city’s Court Alternatives Program, which offers low-income residents who struggle to pay civil fines options for avoiding jail. Two Municipal Court judges sought to cancel JusticePoint’s city contract but provided little public explanation as to why. On Nov. 6 Judge Joseph Donald of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued an order requiring the city to continue paying JusticePoint for its services during its appeal of a lower court’s dismissal of its lawsuit against the city. (Credit: Jonmaesha Beltran / Wisconsin Watch)

Mandell takes issue with that distancing attempt.

“Usually, when a defendant has nothing to do with something, they tell that to the court, and that’s not what the city has done here,” he said. “At no point have they said, ‘Hey, this was not our decision. We didn’t do this.'”

Joseph Ellwanger, a former pastor of Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee who supports JusticePoint’s services, also finds the situation curious.

“It is rather strange that the Common Council apparently legally has no way to oversee or intervene in the contract even though it’s the city that provides the money for the contract,” he said.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch collaborates with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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