One Way in which Milwaukee’s Criminal Justice System Contributes to Poverty

Crime & Punishment, Sheriff David Clarke, Phone Calls from Jail, Collect Calls, Cell Phones, Minor Crime, Poverty

This is a TRUE story about how one person’s run in with the Criminal Justice System in Milwaukee County has cost them their livelihood, health, housing and future.

This is NOT a story about violent or felony crime.

And this is a story that the average resident of the Northshore Suburbs of Milwaukee probably would not have happen to them. 

This IS a story about those who live on the edge between poverty and a decent living, and who are susceptible to the grand standing Get Tough on Crime Political Realities.

An acquaintance of one of my co-workers (I’ll call him Carl), who I have known for about 5 or 6 years had a good paying job (in the context of his socio-economic bracket that means between $10 and $15 per hour, and some benefits), that allowed him to live a comfortable but modest lifestyle --- an apartment costing about $600 a month, a very used car and a little spending money.

Carl lived in Milwaukee around 35th and Wisconsin, but like many residents of the inner city, his employment was in Port Washington (most “good” jobs are not in the city, and most of those in the suburbs are not available by public transit).

As luck would have it, Carl got pulled over by the Milwaukee police for a minor traffic violation, and it turned out that he still owed a fine (about $500) from a prior traffic violation, and there was a warrant for his arrest.

Yes, Carl was stupid! He should have paid his fine, and there would not have been any more to tell in this story.

But as Carl did NOT pay the prior fine, he was arrested, handcuffed, taken to the MPD local station, and then forwarded on to the Milwaukee County Jail.

Oh well, you may be thinking now --- NO BIG DEAL !! --- so he pays the $500 fine and gets out of jail. Except, that most folks in Carl’s income bracket are living on the edge, and don’t usually have a spare $500 on hand.

Okay, again No Big Deal --- Carl can just call a friend or two, and get the $500 he needs and gets a “get out of jail card” that way.

Or so one would think --- but one would be wrong !!!!!!

First of all, when Carl is arrested by the MPD, he is not allowed to make any phone calls from his cell phone, or from a phone at the police station. They tell him he can make a call when he gets to Milwaukee County Jail.


At the County lockup, they of course take away his cell phone, and he only has access to a pay phone ……… and can only make “collect” calls, or use a calling card purchased from the jail commissary.

Now maybe you know a lot of folks who will take a collect call from you. If you know their number off the top of your head --- and ONLY IF they have a LAND LINE!

You cannot make a collect call to a Cell Phone. And I hope it is no surprise to many of you, that most people in Carl’s Socioeconomic Bracket do NOT have Land Lines --- almost all have cell phones.

You cannot use money to make a call from the Milwaukee County Jail, you must buy a Phone Card from the commissary. 

This sounds fine in theory, except that you can only go to the commissary once a week! 

If you are booked in on a Thursday, and your jail section day for the Commissary is on Wednesday, you have to wait a week before you can buy a phone card --- and then only if you have money in your Commissary Account.

For a little background on this whole deal, a large part of the reason that they have this system in the Milwaukee County Jail is that Sheriff David Clarke believes that there is not enough Punishment in the Criminal Justice System. and he likes to brag about how he saves the County money, 

Now one of the ways that Sheriff Clarke likes to Save the County money, is to take it from those who can least afford it!

You see, the phone system at the County Jail is not a regular system --- it is actually a contract that Sheriff Clarke has with a private phone firm, that charges $5.55 for a 15 minute collect call. 

In 2007, the Sheriff picked up a nice little sum of $1,129,200 off the rigged phone system.

In Carl’s case, he was stupid to be there, as he had not paid his previous fine. 

But the average prisoner in jail has NOT been convicted of anything --- many of them have not even had the chance yet to see a lawyer or judge.

Yet, because they are poor and cannot post bail, or pay some small fine, their families (those who may have a land line) get ripped off by accepting their calls. 

Sheriff Clarke gets to punish both the inmate and the inmate’s family, while making money off the backs of the poorest in our community.

Getting back to Carl’s situation, Sheriff Clarke can chalk up an extra punishment. 

Since Carl could not call anyone he knew with a land line --- and since his workplace will not take a phone call from a county jail --- Carl lost his job for not reporting in for three days in a row. (Carl had a perfect record at his job, never missed a day or was late)

It just so happened that Carl had only a few days left until his first year anniversary with the company, but since he was fired before that date, he lost his accrued vacation time, the raise he was due to receive, and all his health benefits.

In addition, Carl’s company requires all new hires to sign a form that says that if they do not report in for three consecutive days in a roll --- they are considered to have resigned their position, and have not technically been fired, and are not eligible for unemployment benefits.

I am not a lawyer, but it just seems that it shouldn’t be legal to sign away your rights to unemployment benefits, especially as it is a unilateral agreement that is non-negotiable for a new hire.

And yes, Carl did appeal his denial of unemployment benefits, but was denied them.

And yes, Carl will be without a place to live at the end of this month. One more person unemployed and homeless in Milwaukee.

Sheriff Clarke Tough on Crime & Punishment??? 

That depends upon your definition of Crime!!!




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