Yes, the justice system in Milwaukee County is likely to come out of the pandemic operating better than it was before.
Yes, a lot of lessons have been learned, and some of them will have lasting impact.
But no, operating remotely and under the constraints imposed by COVID-19 precautions is not such a great thing, overall, and a return to in-person work as the predominant way the system operates is needed.
Those answers provide a broad description of an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” discussion with four leaders in courts and criminal justice in Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee. The session was posted on the Marquette Law School web site on Jan. 22, 2021.
Taking part in the program were Chief Judge Mary Triggiano of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court; Judge Derek Mosley of the Milwaukee Municipal Court; Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm; and Tom Reed, regional attorney manager of the State Public Defender’s Milwaukee Trial Office.
A central reason for the Milwaukee County court system continuing to operate as well as it has since the pandemic shutdown began last March is the extensive communication and cooperation among key participants. “I think I spend more time with John (Chisholm) and Tom (Reed) than I do with any of my family members because we’re in meetings constantly,” Triggiano told Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy. They meet (remotely, of course) generally daily and bring in many others in the system, as well as health experts, to figure how to proceed.
Triggiano said the court system never really shut down, but it took enormous effort to switch to conducting business, including court sessions, primarily by remote means. There has been a degree of return to in-person operations, she said. “We’re probably at 40 percent in person,” she said, including one civil court, one family court, and the domestic violence court holding sessions in person. Most criminal jury trials and sentencings are in person.
Mosley said the Milwaukee Municipal Court was conducting some of its business remotely before the pandemic, so the adjustment was not as major as it was for the circuit courts. He said the three municipal judges preside over large volumes of matters such as traffic citations and housing code matters, and things have been going generally well. People have adjusted to appearing before the court online. The number of personal appearances has gone up because it is easier to appear in court now. He said there recently was a case involving a trucker who appeared “in person” from a truck stop in Arizona.
Reed said leaders of the justice system were already working before the pandemic hit on how to operate remotely for a period. But the reason was anticipation of the impact on all of downtown Milwaukee of the Democratic National Convention last summer. The convention didn’t really materialize, but the planning paid off when COVID-19 did.
Chisholm said that relationships that had been built through earlier efforts such as the Milwaukee Community Justice Council were crucial to keeping the justice system going during the pandemic. Those relationships and the high level of cooperation during the current period should have lasting benefit, several of the participants said.
But all four said there were aspects of in-person work that were valuable and need to be restored as soon as it is safe. Reed said that while many people who are helped by the public defender’s office have been able to get help more easily than in the past due to Zoom and similar online services, there were also down sides to remote work. Not all people have good access to the technology that is needed, he said, and the in-person aspects of helping a client are important. A lot of information is shared when you are in person is missed in a remote setting, and non-verbal communications from such things as body posture and facial expressions are important but not easily detected online.
Will the system be better for what has been learned in this period?
“No doubt about it,” said Mosley. The lessons will make both the courts and the community as whole better in the long run, he said.
Chisholm said that if the impact of the pandemic leads to greater effort to deal with housing insecurity and the need for better public health services in Milwaukee, “we would actually see the need for criminal justice intervention recede greatly.”
Reed said, “I see tremendous opportunity coming out of this.” A lot of relationships have been strengthened that can make legal proceedings more efficient and better when it comes to serving people, and lessons are being learned about ways to reduce the number of people in the county jail and the House of Correction without harming community safety.
Triggiano said, there was work underway aimed at improving the system before the pandemic began. But this period created “a grand opportunity” to look at how things are done and how they can be done better. “We’re committed to coming back in a different way that makes it better,” she said. “We need to get up, but we also have to be careful in how we do it and do it right.”
Video of the one-hour program may be viewed by clicking here.