Horrified but Optimistic: Criminal Justice System Leaders Assess Pandemic’s Impact in Milwaukee

OTI Justice in the Time of Covid“Everything is connected to everything.” That phrase, spoken by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, summed up much of the content of a program on the impact of COVID-19 on Milwaukee County’s criminal justice system on Tuesday (Sept. 26, 2023) in the Lubar Center of Marquette Law School’s Eckstein Hall.

There were several ways of looking at that thought:

First, there was a long list of impacts of the COVID pandemic, including major services that were shut down, disrupted, or limited for long periods. It wasn’t one aspect of the pandemic that was the key, it was all the aspects coming together to impair the effectiveness of law enforcement and courts.

Second, as speakers at the program put it, the justice system is an ecosystem and problems in one aspect of the system impact problems in other parts. For example, a shortage of public defenders or court reporters or jails cells affects the work of police and courts broadly.

Third, five key leaders who were on the panel assessing the pandemic’s effect on the criminal justice system in Milwaukee emphasized how well they worked together during the pandemic, how closely they stayed connected to teach other, and how much they were not willing to point fingers at others in blame for major problems that occurred.

And fourth, as Chisholm put it, the justice ecosystem is part of the broader ecosystem of how the community functions or doesn’t function, as was especially true during the heights of COVID. One example: “You shut a school system down and then you’re shocked that a bunch of young kids are stealing cars and driving recklessly?” Chisholm asked.

Put all the impacts together and you have a justice system in which many services were reduced, problems increased, and bad things happened in Milwaukee.

The focus of the program was an August 2023 report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum titled “Under Pressure: The Milwaukee Justice System’s Recovery from COVID-19.”

Rob Henken, president of the policy forum, began the Lubar Center program with a summary of data collected for the report, including increased criminal offenses, led by a huge increase in motor vehicle thefts; a decline in arrests by Milwaukee police that Henken called “precipitous”; declining rates in how many criminal cases were being charged by the district attorney’s office; and development of a large backlog of court cases.

Reacting to the findings in the report were Chief Judge Carl Ashley of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court; Tom Reed, Regional Attorney Manager of the State Public Defender’s Milwaukee Trial Office; Jeffrey Norman, Milwaukee Police Chief; Mary Triggiano, who was chief judge in Milwaukee County during the heights of the pandemic and who is now director of the Andrew Center for Restorative Justice at Marquette Law School; and Chisholm. Moderating the program was Derek Mosley, director of the Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education.

Ashley, the current chief judge, said he was “extraordinarily proud” of the way leaders in the system as a whole worked to keep services going and deal with problems. While not minimizing problems that developed, he said he was optimistic that improvements in the system as a whole would come out of what was learned ruing the pandemic.

“We are not going to prison our way out of our criminal justice issues,” Ashley said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for us to do things differently.” He said how the system overall deals with people with mental health problems is one area where improvements can be made.

Reed described the challenges of keeping public defender work going during the pandemic, as well as in recent years more broadly. Shortages of attorneys to represent indigent defendants had developed and then grew worse during the pandemic. And without attorneys to represent defendants, cases could not proceed. Reed said there are points when he faced deep problems finding attorneys in a timely manner. Things have gotten better, he said, and provisions in the current state budget increasing pay for defenders, as well as assistant district attorneys, are beginning to help.

Triggiano said that at the start of the COVID crisis, people were told shutdowns would last two weeks. “Who knew?” she asked. She said that as much as backlogs built and problems grew, people worked cooperatively day and night to restore services. In some ways, such as the resumption of jury trials, the justice system did better than other sectors.

Norman said that data such as the number of crimes and arrests needed to be looked at in the context of all that police were dealing with. Assessing the performance of the police department isn’t only about data such as the number of arrests but about “quality arrests,” as he put it. One important factor during the pandemic was restrictions on how many people could be put in jail, he said, which meant some lesser offenses were not leading to arrests and incarcerations.

Chisholm said the data in the Policy Forum’s report “horrified us,” but the leaders wanted to be open and candid about what they had faced and continue to face. “Having the highest rates of homicide and nonfatal shootings, it has horrified everybody up here,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to try get that back under control. But we’re not going to see anyone pointing fingers at each other because we all share this.”

He said everyone on the panel “got into public service . . . because they believe in trying to make the community a better place.”

Chisholm gave an example of the pandemic’s impact. He said expansion of the Sojourner Family Peace Center, a non-profit that serves woman and children impacted by domestic violence, was intended to reduce such violence and stabilize lives. He said that, unfortunately, the pandemic proved the theory was correct: As the pandemic has reduced the use of Sojourner’s services, “we’ve seen unprecedented levels of serious violence and homicides that have been domestic violence related.” Milwaukee needs preventive services such as this, he said.

Chisholm said many of the factors behind reduced crime rates before the pandemic hit, such as improved health and social services, were knocked out by the pandemic.

He said that in 2019, he thought the overall situation in Milwaukee was “crappy” when it came to efforts to improve lives and reduce problems, but there were some positives. Now, he said, leaders are trying to get back to the 2019 level. He said he hopes that will occur by the end of 2023.

Video of the program may be watched by clicking here.

Continue ReadingHorrified but Optimistic: Criminal Justice System Leaders Assess Pandemic’s Impact in Milwaukee

Assembly Bill 415 brings a lot of potential for fair maps, but leaves a key question unanswered

This week, Republicans in the Wisconsin State Assembly introduced a bill purporting to establish independent redistricting in Wisconsin. After amendments, it passed with unified GOP support and 1 Democratic vote on Thursday night.

The rushed legislative process and lack of full, public hearings left many aspects of the legislation ill-understood, and many Democrats criticized the political calculus behind the bill’s abrupt timing.

Setting aside the purported motives of legislators, this blog post will consider the specific aspects of Assembly Bill 415, as ultimately amended.

AB415 outlines a redistricting process similar to the one used in Iowa. Here is a simplified description:

  • The State Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) draws legislative maps in consultation with an independent redistricting commission. The LRB maps must be drawn without regard for partisan strength and incumbent addresses. They must contain equal populations, meet federal civil rights requirements, be contiguous, compact, preserve municipal boundaries as much as possible, and use locally-drawn wards as their basic buildings blocks (4.007).
  • The legislature must take an up-or-down vote on the LRB maps. They cannot offer any “amendments except those of a purely corrective nature” (p7, l16).
  • If the legislature fails to pass the plan, or the governor vetoes it, the LRB tries drawing the maps again, taking into account the other body’s complaints, so long as those complains are consistent with the LRB’s nonpartisan criteria.
  • The legislature once again votes on the LRB’s new maps, still without the ability to substantively amend them.
  • This process of voting and LRB revision continues until the maps are either passed (and signed by the governor), or until “January 31 of the 2nd year following the federal decennial census” (Amendment 5).

If no LRB plan is passed by this date, the next steps are unclear.

The text of the bill reads, “No plan may be considered and voted on after January 31 of the 2nd year following the federal decennial census.” Elsewhere, the bill states, “’Plan’ means a plan for legislative reapportionment prepared under this subchapter.”

In one reading, this prohibits the legislature from considering an LRB plan after January 30, but it does not prevent them from passing a plan not created by the LRB. Does this mean that the legislature could simply run out the clock on LRB plans, before passing one entirely of their own devising?

Of course, this strategy would probably require one party to control both the legislature and the governor’s office. What if the legislature and/or governor reaches an impasse, and is unable to pass any map, whether derived by themselves or the LRB?

The bill is silent on this scenario. Currently, either a federal court or the state Supreme Court draws maps for the state, if the political branches of the government fail. Presumably, that status quo would remain in effect. But, again, AB415 offers no clarity.

The parts of this bill that deal with the LRB criteria for drawing maps strike me as quite good. They lay out widely accepted criteria for drawing fair maps, using reasonably clear definitions. Maps drawn using that guidance would be genuinely neutral; although, Wisconsin’s asymmetrical political geography would still give Republican an advantage in a 50-50 election year.

For me, the crux of this bill rests with that January 31 deadline. What happens if no LRB plan is passed after that time?

Is it true that the legislature can pass whatever they want at that point? If so, this means that under unified government (as in 2011) either party can gerrymander to their heart’s content. Under divided government (as we have now) a court intervenes, following a process of their own devising.

This is hardly different than the status quo, which put Wisconsin in its current predicament.

The drafters of Amendment 5 appear to have made an important concession. Before that Amendment was passed, the bill allowed the legislature to amend the LRB’s 3rd proposal however they pleased, including replacing it entirely. Obviously, this is unpalatable to the minority party.

Amendment 5 removes the ability of the legislature to substantively amend any LRB plan. But it may replace that ability with a simple deadline, after which the legislature may pass whatever partisan plan it desires.

A better law would clear up this confusion. One option would be specifying that the Wisconsin Supreme Court chooses from among the LRB plans if the January 31st deadline passes unmet. This would go a long way towards removing partisan bias in Wisconsin’s legislative maps.

Continue ReadingAssembly Bill 415 brings a lot of potential for fair maps, but leaves a key question unanswered

Why Report on K–12 Education in Wisconsin? Listen to Alan Borsuk.

Alan BorsukAlan J. Borsuk has been the Law School’s senior fellow in law and public policy since fall 2009—call it 14 years. So, for a not wholly impertinent point, he has some time to go before replicating his 37 preceding years as a reporter and editor at the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In any event, during his time with us, he has kept his hand in the newspaper with the occasional—nay, frequent—column on K–12 education policy and practice in this region. Why?

Borsuk’s recent piece in The Grade, a nationwide online platform focused on journalism about education, will tell you. Here’s a flavor (the introduction):

I crossed paths with a former member of the Milwaukee school board a while ago.

He had moved on from the school scene, but I was still writing about K-12 education, as I had across more than 50 years.

“Do you feel like you’re living ‘Groundhog Day’?” he asked me, referring to the movie in which the protagonist repeats the same day over and over.

“Yes. All the time,” I told him.

At that time, I often felt like I was writing pieces I’d written so many times before.

But I was still doing it.

Why? Because damn it, it’s important.

That’s why I’m still at it all these years later — and why I decided to make what might be my last big project as a journalist a multipart series on longstanding problems in how most schools teach kids to read.

Education coverage should be energetic and powerful. I hope that showed in the recent pieces I wrote about literacy. But I also know there is more I could and should do.

There is more all of us in education journalism could and should do.

As with Borsuk’s work more generally, the whole thing is well worth a read. Find it here.

Continue ReadingWhy Report on K–12 Education in Wisconsin? Listen to Alan Borsuk.