Milwaukee County justice system still reeling from the pandemic, report finds

Wisconsin Policy Forum report sees fewer arrests, backlog in felony cases

Milwaukee County Courthouse
Gretchen Brown/WPR

The COVID-19 pandemic has continued to have a severe impact on the Milwaukee County justice system, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

That report found that arrests in the city have plummeted, while the Milwaukee County Circuit Court still has a sizable backlog of felony cases. Meanwhile, prosecutors are charging fewer crimes.

“This initial research raises important questions about the impact of these disruptions, both on the rights of individuals such as offenders and victims, as well as on overall outcomes such as public safety and the cost of the justice system,” the report said.

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“While the root causes of crime and violent crime have been debated for centuries, there can be little debate about the substantial stress created by the pandemic in all components of the county’s justice system,” according to the report.

This comes as Milwaukee broke its homicide record for the third year in a row last year.

The report was commissioned by the Milwaukee-based Argosy Foundation and the Milwaukee Community Justice Council. Rob Henken, president of Wisconsin Policy Forum, said the goal was to examine the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system in Milwaukee.

“We know that there were some severe disruptions to the justice system in Milwaukee County,” Henken said.

From 2018 to 2022, arrests for serious crimes — including homicide, rape and aggravated assault — were down 36.8 percent, according to the report.

In Milwaukee County, those crimes totaled between an average of 43,000 and 46,000 annually from 2018 to 2020. But in 2021, that number rose to 54,039 in 2021 before declining to 46,927 in 2022. The report found that 70 to 80 percent of those crimes are logged by the Milwaukee Police Department.

Less serious crimes increased by 26 percent from 2018 to 2022. Even so, arrests for those crimes declined by 61 percent in the city during that same time period.

The report pointed to increased calls for service and a decrease in the number of officers as a reason for a decline in arrests. Budget issues the city has been dealing with for years have also impacted the number of active officers.

“In addition to seeing an increase in workload from greater numbers of service calls and medical runs, Milwaukee Police Department officials cite a shrinking number of officers on the street to handle that workload as a likely contributor to the sharp drop in arrests,” the report found.

Henken said he’s heard from some that the impact of a 2017 ACLU settlement on policing in Milwaukee, which impacted stop and frisk policies in the city, could have had an impact on the decline in arrests. But he said Milwaukee police do not have enough time now to conduct “proactive policing” because of a declining number of officers.

“Which often involves interacting with people, going out and doing police work and looking for witnesses and so forth and being able to build a case that can result in an arrest,” Henken said.

The report found that Milwaukee County district attorney charge rates, or the percentage of referrals that result in a charge, are also declining.

Only 34 percent of misdemeanor cases referred to the Milwaukee District Attorney’s Office in 2022 resulted in charges. In 2017, that number was at 45.2 percent. When it comes to felony cases, 39.7 percent were referred to the office in 2022, while 48.9 percent were referred in 2017.

Case backlogs, or the number of cases pending before the court, have also increased during the pandemic, especially for felony cases.

“The backlog grew exponentially for both misdemeanors and felonies at the height of the pandemic,” Henken said.

The number of pending felony cases grew from 3,512 in December 2019 to 5,405 in January 2022, a 53 percent increase.

By the end of 2022, the backlog had only been trimmed to 5,056. At the end of March 2023 it still stood at 5,032 pending cases, according to the report.

“Justice system officials have cited staffing shortages in positions ranging from court reporters to district attorneys to public defenders as a primary cause of sustained backlogs,” the report said.

The report recommended increasing staffing at the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office as a way to help with some of the issues Milwaukee County is facing.

“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,” the report said. “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.”

A statement from the office of Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said the report highlighted the need for continued partnership with the state.

“Our organization has been pleased to see a recent reset in the relationship between local leaders and the state legislature,” the statement said. “The policy forum’s report shows the need for continued partnership and collaboration to ensure justice is administered swiftly and efficiently in every corner of Wisconsin.”