Milwaukee Judges Tried to Shut Down the City’s Court Diversion Program. No One’s Saying Why.
Municipal Court officials refuse to comment on efforts to cancel JusticePoint's contract without lining up an alternative provider. A legal ruling allows the services to continue—for now.
This story is part of a collaboration between Wisconsin Watch, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and The Appeal.
Four decades ago, a newspaper investigation described Milwaukee’s municipal legal system as “cash register justice.” Thousands of impoverished residents with mental health or substance use issues languished in county jails due to unpaid civil violation fines,costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Responding to the outcry from The Milwaukee Journal’s 1985 investigation, the city stopped automatically jailing residents who failed to pay civil fines and expanded its Court Alternatives Program. As a result, Milwaukee sent people like Sue Eckhart to court, where they could help low-income residents and those with mental health problems by offering alternatives to incarceration.
Eckhart has managed the alternatives program for decades, providing assessments, screenings, and referrals to treatments or community service for those facing civil violations, such as illegal parking or loitering. Since 2015, the program’s vendor, currently JusticePoint, Inc., has served 705 people with mental health issues, 80 percent of whom resolved their cases without paying a fine, wrote Eckhart, JusticePoint’s program director, in an email to Wisconsin Watch, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and The Appeal. The nonprofit says it’s served 11,000 total clients during the last eight years.
Although the organizations providing those services changed over time, the core staff—Eckhart and her colleagues—stayed put. But in May, Eckhart suffered a “gut punch” when the city terminated her organization’s contract before it expired in 2024. Officials provided little explanation as to why and did not line up another vendor to take over what many see as vital work to curb mass incarceration.
“I never saw that coming at all,” Eckhart said in an interview.
In a last-ditch effort to seek answers, JusticePoint sued the city on July 10—a day before the city’s cancellation took effect. A Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge quickly granted a temporary restraining order, allowing JusticePoint’s services to continue as the dispute unfolds in court.
But the prospect of eliminating—and not replacing—JusticePoint’s services has stirred confusion and deep concerns among those serving some of Milwaukee’s most vulnerable residents. At a time when numerous states and cities are taking steps to reduce pretrial detention, advocates in Milwaukee say attempting to halt the city’s court alternatives program is a step in reverse.
“It is shocking that Milwaukee Municipal Court would suddenly cancel the contract for such an invaluable program,” wrote a coalition of 24 local organizations in May after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported the city’s plans. They added that the court had provided no information on what would happen to the hundreds of people JusticePoint currently serves.