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Going down: Impatience rises over broken elevator

By: Joe Yovino//May 31, 2011//

Going down: Impatience rises over broken elevator

By: Joe Yovino//May 31, 2011//

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By Jack Zemlicka

(Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

A broken-down elevator in Milwaukee County Jail is slowing down attorneys, delaying court cases and irritating inmates.

The ground-floor elevator, solely used for professional visits to inmates, broke down about five months ago.

Gary Waszak, interim director of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation and Public Works, said the 15-year-old elevator failed unexpectedly, and the county does not have a specific schedule to replace it.

Chief Judge Jeff Kremers, at a judicial committee meeting May 25, said he was told by Waszak that the estimated $120,000 elevator replacement won’t happen until the end of summer.

“It’s not like having work done on a car,” Waszak said. “There are a lot of materials involved, so this isn’t something that can be done in a short period of time, and I explained that to the chief judge.”

Until the elevator is replaced, attorneys and their clients are dealing with delays. The security in the jail prevents attorneys from simply taking the stairs to get to their clients.

A client visit that used to take 20 minutes now takes about an hour, said Milwaukee criminal defense lawyer Craig Mastantuono, because jail staff members have to use two separate public elevators to escort visitors to inmates in the six-story building.

The bulk of the time, he said, is spent waiting for a jail staff member to make his or her way down to meet the attorney.

Previously, attorneys would show identification, check in, take the secure elevator to the floor on which their clients were confined and then be escorted by a deputy to a meeting room.

Since the breakdown, judges in Milwaukee County Felony Court have watched attorneys try to work through pre-trial or pre-sentencing reports with their clients immediately before a hearing, Judge Dennis Cimpl said. But rather than let a lawyer race through the report with a client, Cimpl said, he has rescheduled hearings.

“I’ve told them no,” he said. “They have to read a pre-sentence report with a client charged with sexual assault, and that takes time.”

The delays also have led to communication breakdowns with clients and prompted an increase in inmates requesting their appointed attorneys withdraw from cases, Cimpl said.

When a new lawyer is appointed as a replacement, either by the State Public Defender or the county, that attorney has to get up to speed on the case, which also leads to delays.

“The clients have this impression that their lawyer doesn’t care,” Cimpl said.

There also is the possibility the delays are causing more than bad impressions. While most criminal defense attorneys don’t charge hourly rates, Mastantuono said, he has the choice to either bill his clients for the additional time or absorb the cost.

“Anytime you spend more time working on a case,” he said, “it’s going to affect the profit margins, especially when it’s not productive.”

But when lawyers are assigned by the State Public Defender or Milwaukee County to defend indigent clients, the appointing entity is on the hook for any additional charges.

The state rate is $40 an hour, while the county rate is $60 an hour.

“For appointed counsel, it’s all billable time and legitimate billable time,” Mastantuono said. “It’s got to be costing a lot in man-hours and overall efficiency to the court system.”

That might be true to a certain extent, said Tom Reed, first assistant public defender in the Milwaukee Trial Office, but he hasn’t been able to gauge the cost.

“We cannot demonstrate a correlation,” he said. “Some of those concerns are probably worth thinking about and looking, but the data isn’t fine enough to determine changes or patterns that could be traced to that elevator.”

But the headaches, Mastantuono said, easily are traced to the elevator.

“It’s inefficient and onerous,” he said. “It’s difficult to coordinate client meetings with court dates because you don’t know how long it’s going to take.”


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