Emma Shakeshaft

The Project

Emma challenged modern-day debtors’ prisons in Wisconsin by urging courts to pursue more rational and equitable approaches to criminal justice debt. The project aimed to implement constitutional court procedures and legal advocacy through 1) coalition-building 2) attorney training and pro-bono opportunities 3) community outreach and education 4) impact litigation and 5) data collection and evaluation.

In Milwaukee County, between 20-50 individuals were sitting in custody solely because they failed to pay a fine, fee, forfeiture, or other monetary payment required as a result of a municipal ordinance violation or traffic violation. State and local courts throughout Wisconsin have attempted to increase funding by using aggressive tactics to collect unpaid fines and fees for low-level municipal violations. Courts have gone so far as to order the arrest and jailing of people who fall behind on their payments, without affording hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment. As with many areas of the justice system, those who are impacted the most by these unconstitutional practices are under-resourced people of color.

Fellowship Highlights

During her Fellowship, Emma filed indigency petitions for people at the house of corrections who were there solely due to the inability to pay municipal tickets. Through individual representation, she was able to greatly reduce the cost and consequences of traffic tickets in two jurisdictions on behalf of a minor. She along with the ACLU of Wisconsin and more than 35 attorneys and legal organizations successfully advocated for the dismissal of 182 out of 191 curfew tickets issued in the city of Milwaukee, removing approximately $126,000 of legal financial obligations. She successfully advocated for the repeal of the truancy ordinance in Appleton, Wisconsin, and gave over 20 presentations and trainings to community members and legal professionals. Finally, Emma developed know-your-rights materials, pro bono materials, and helped recruit and train pro bono attorneys representing individuals with protest-related tickets in municipal court.

Next Steps

Emma remains at the ACLU of Wisconsin, where she is now a staff attorney. She continues to expand her work on issues related to the criminalization of poverty, criminal justice, and racial justice.


Navigating Municipal Courts

Know Your Rights: Pocket Guide for Navigating Wisconsin Municipal Courts

ACLU urges Gov. Tony Evers to extend the eviction moratorium in Wisconsin

ACLU says Milwaukee attorney should 'break with harmful tactics of the past' and dismiss curfew tickets issued during protests

Chest to Chest: Inmates Are “Sitting Ducks” Waiting for COVID-19

I have a personal commitment to practice law in areas that benefit communities of color and focus on racial justice, specifically within the areas of civil rights and criminal justice reform.

Emma Shakeshaft /
2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow