Angeline Terry
Court Watch

County Courts Face Huge Backlog

Could take two years to resolve. Delay of cases during pandemic compounded by spike in violence and new cases.

By - Jul 19th, 2021 11:58 am
Milwaukee County Courthouse

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene

The Milwaukee County Circuit Court system faces a massive backlog of cases that could take a long time to resolve.

In an interview with Urban Milwaukee, District Attorney John Chisholm estimated it could take up to 18 months to work through the backlog.

But Adam Plotkin, legislative liaison for the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Officetold the Wisconsin Examiner it could take two to three years to resolve all the old cases. “When you’re talking about tens of thousands of cases a year,” he said, “everything moves a little bit slower, things stack up, they don’t resolve and, particularly for our private bar partners, they don’t want to accept new cases until old ones resolve.” 

It all started in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the court system was forced to close in-person court appearances. Last June it opened with limited capacity to abide by social distancing guidelines. Some court appearances were, and still are, held over Zoom. 

“Operating with just a fraction of those courts meant that you were putting cases off further and further,” Chisholm said.

Across the state there is a massive backlog of cases and jury trials that have built up over the last year and a half because of the pandemic, the Examiner reported. But Milwaukee County faces an additional issue: There has also been an uptick in violent crime, according to the Milwaukee Police Department. Rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults all increased in 2020. Compared to 2019 numbers, 2020 saw a 95% increase in Milwaukee homicides. 

“It’s a confluence of multiple intersecting problems that have compounded and that resulted in rates of violence that we have just never seen before,” Chisholm said. “These are historically high numbers.” 

This, according to Circuit Court Chief Judge Mary Triggiano, makes it difficult to work through the backlog. “We’re trying to battle getting the current work done with trying to deal with the backlog,” she said. 

Every county in the state has started to regularly hold jury trials again, but about half are still operating under modified conditions and health restrictions, the Examiner reported. Courts in Milwaukee are still using Zoom for some proceedings, but other cases, like violent crime cases where individuals have been waiting in custody, are prioritized for in-person appearances. 

“There are just some things that have to be done in-person,” Chisholm said. “Obviously a jury trial has to be in-person.”

Triggiano said there are a lot of benefits to Zoom proceedings, like the convenience of participants not having to wait at the courthouse, but there also needs to be more research around equitable access to online resources. 

“We don’t know quite yet if there are pockets of people in our community that really can’t access our courts because they don’t have bandwidth, phones or other technology to do it.” Triggiano said. “We’re going to proceed with caution around continuing to do remote hearings.” 

This backlog has also caused technology changes and improvements to help court officials file cases more efficiently. 

“Just having the people and the resources to work through the backlogs and make sure we’re making decisions on how we go forward is going to be the biggest limitation to getting things back to normal,” Chisholm said. 

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Categories: Court Watch

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