Jeramey Jannene

New Report Finds Milwaukee’s Criminal Justice System In Peril

Arrests are down, felony charges are down and a court backlog remains

By - Aug 3rd, 2023 01:00 am
Milwaukee Police Department officer pulls over a vehicle in Bay View. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee Police Department officer pulls over a vehicle in Bay View. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF) shows that Milwaukee’s criminal justice system is breaking down at virtually every level.

The Milwaukee Police Department is arresting fewer people, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office is charging fewer crimes and the Milwaukee County Circuit Court has a sustained backlog of felony cases to try.

The analysis, which covers 2018 through 2022 and all Milwaukee County law enforcement agencies, comes as the COVID-19 pandemic upended criminal justice systems across the country and homicides and motor vehicle thefts spiked.

Based on police statistics that exclude vehicle thefts, the number of reported serious crimes (Part 1 offenses reported to the FBI) is down 11.6% since 2018. But the number of people actually arrested for those crimes is down 43.6%.

A similar trend plays out for Part 2 (non-weapon or limited injury) offenses. MPD data shows a 26.4% increase from 2018 to 2022, but a 61% decline in arrests for those offenses.

MPD officials suggested cited a host of reasons for the issues. That includes an increased workload for officers with higher call volumes (7% increase) and a need for more prisoner transports for medical issues (tripled from pre-pandemic levels) that MPD attributes to overcrowding at the Milwaukee County Criminal Justice Facility and more individuals needing to be held at police stations.

The number of officers has also declined 17%, a result of the city’s deteriorating fiscal situation and rising per-officer costs rather than a “defund the police” policy strategy.

The complicated ACLU/Collins settlement, which requires more documentation for traffic stops and other interactions, was referenced by individuals outside of the department as a factor limiting arrests. But WPF noted there is “no data to confirm this” without dismissing it its potential impact.

The net result of all of the factors is proactive policing activities, tracked through MPD’s dispatching system, “declined by a whopping 59%.” MPD officials told WPF that it is those activities and investigations that lead to arrests.

And with fewer arrests, there are fewer people to charge.

District Attorney’s Office

The number of people referred to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office for charges declined 13.9%, which has reduced the number of charges. But WPF’s analysis found that the percentage of referred cases that end up with charges also dropped.

“For both felonies and misdemeanors, in each year between 2015 and 2019, the charge rate was above 45%. Since 2020, there has yet to be a year in which the misdemeanor charge rate has been above 37.2%, and it fell to a low of 34.4% in 2022. Felony charge rates also have seen a drop-off, from a peak of 48.9% in 2017 to 44.1% in 2020, 41.6% in 2021 and a low of 39.7% in 2022,” says the report.

District Attorney’s Office members told WPF researchers that part of the percentage decline can be attributed to the quality of investigation work provided by law enforcement partners to the prosecutors.

A secondary issue is staffing within the District Attorney’s Office. The office experienced greater than 15% attorney turnover in 2017, 2019 and 2022. A final issue is the changing nature of domestic violence cases, where the charge rate was cut nearly in half. Representatives of the District Attorney’s Office say it has been harder to interview victims and witnesses as a result of the pandemic and said the effects still linger.

The total number of cases filed by the District Attorney’s Office dropped as a result of the pandemic onset, but has yet to recover. But WPF notes that felony filings have shown the greatest recovery, with 2022 filings being only 6.1% below 2019. Misdemeanor filings remain down 22.4%.

Court Issues

Despite declines in the case pipeline, issues remain with processing time in the court system.

The court system has made some progress on a backlog that appears tied to the onset of the pandemic. The median pending felony case is 77.2% older than it was pre-pandemic, with misdemeanor cases 76.1% older.

Measured by the total number of cases pending, the backlog peaked in January 2022, with felonies remaining far above their pre-pandemic levels and misdemeanor cases now nearing their pre-pandemic levels.

The percentage of cases dismissed by the court system has increased, a trend, the report notes, that started before the pandemic.

“We found, interestingly, that the proportion of misdemeanor cases that ended with a
dismissal was rising noticeably prior to the pandemic and then continued to increase, from 21.7% in 2017 to 33.2% in 2021,” says the report. Felony dismissals went from a 2016-2019 range of 18% to 19% to 23.3% in 2020, 28.3% in 2021 and 27% in 2022.

Court officials have attributed the backlog to staffing shortages, from positions ranging from court reporters to public defenders. The nature of cases is also changing, with body camera evidence requiring more time to review. Additionally, WPF reports data shows a 32% increase in individuals in county custody that required a mental competency exam, which can add months to a trial.

“Bottom Line: Further Investigation Needed”

“Overall, this report has revealed that multiple key points of the justice system pipeline in Milwaukee County are not functioning in the same way or at the same level as they were prior to the pandemic. It is now incumbent upon justice system leaders and state and local policymakers to aggressively explore why that is, to what degree it may have impacted public safety, what progress is being made in remedying identified challenges, and whether additional resources or other solutions are required to get the system back on track,” concludes the report.

Individuals have talked about issues with various facets of the pipeline since the onset of the pandemic, but the Wisconsin Policy Forum report is the first examination of the entire system.

It comes at a time when leadership is stabilizing. Police Chief Jeffrey Norman is now in his second year in the role. Sheriff Denita Ball is halfway through her first year in office. Veteran judge Carl Ashley is now Chief Judge after serving as deputy under multiple prior chiefs. District Attorney John Chisholm is the lone official to be in his role for the entire period.

WPF’s analysis was commissioned by the Argosy Foundation, led by former county executive Chris Abele, and the Milwaukee Community Justice Council. The report was authored by WPF president Rob Henken, senior research associate Ari Brown and researcher Betsy Mueller.

A copy of the 36-page full report and an 11-page executive summary are available on Urban Milwaukee.

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Categories: Politics, Public Safety

2 thoughts on “New Report Finds Milwaukee’s Criminal Justice System In Peril”

  1. robertm60a3 says:

    I wonder why State Republic Legislators voted against additional positions at State Crime Labs.

  2. ZeeManMke says:

    This article describes a threat to the health and safety of the people of Milwaukee.
    The response of the legislature to leaving us unsafe? Hundreds of millions for a baseball team.

    The response of “business groups?” They could care less. They do not live in places with high crime. Just what do they care about? Making money at the expense of the same people made unsafe by Court underfunding. Crime is something “little people” have to deal with. Not the high-flyers.

    If I told you about a country that let its prisoners be harmed for profit and gave away tax money to rich people, you would say, “That sounds like one brutal country.” Prisoners are human beings. Until we give them a baseline bottom in terms of care and prison conditions, giving away tax money for baseball sounds absurd. It is abusive and brutal.

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