'Double pandemic': COVID-19, uptick in crime create backlog in Milwaukee County court system

’Double pandemic’: COVID-19, uptick in crime create backlog in Milwaukee County court system

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- A public health crisis at the exact same time as a public safety crisis.

"It's been a double pandemic," says Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. He says he's been at work nearly every day since the pandemic started.

He is not alone. Chief Judge Mary Triggiano and Milwaukee Police Captain Patrick Pajot have also worked around the clock keeping streets safe and courts running.

"There's a lot of stress in the court system," says Milwaukee County Chief Judge Mary Triggiano.

"We're bringing in more cases now, working longer hours," says Milwaukee Police Captain Patrick Pajot.

Before Covid hit, 4,500 people were here every day.

"This has been crisis after crisis after crisis, and I'll just keep going back to if we didn't have the relationships that we did -- do have in this court system, we would be in big trouble," says Chief Judge Triggiano.

After being shut down for nearly three months, Milwaukee County courts slowly reopened virtually.

While some proceedings are still on zoom, others are now in person.

Social distance is still in place and cases tightly scheduled to limit the number of people inside.

All are steps forward, but not enough for a backlogged system to bounce back.

"The backlog is very bad, in other words I would say it's three to four times what we would normally have," says Chisholm.

The number of jury trials is down from 12 a week to eight. There are about 170 trials waiting to be heard, putting the Milwaukee County court system about 18 months behind.

"As we open up, one of the biggest limiting factors and us getting through the backlog is going to be how many jurors we can bring in at one time," says Chisholm.

The more jurors, the faster they can process cases.

"The backlog is significant... as it has a ripple effect, right, so we're always going to prioritize the most dangerous cases, but that means that the cases that are serious but not at the same level, they tend to get pushed back further and further," says Chisholm.

"They're tired but they're still getting the job done," says Captain Pajot.

Milwaukee Police Department's day shift homicide detectives are not just investigating crimes, they're also juggling in-person court appearances.

"We do work 24/7 in the homicide unit, so we do have times where we may have times where one shift is in court and other shifts pick up the backlog or the follow-up," says Captain Pajot.

Chisholm says the past 18 months have severely damaged years of progress reducing violent crime.

"In many ways yes, it's been frustrating because the Covid crisis was more than enough of a challenge right there, you really did not need to compound it by having people engage in all this violent behavior," says Chisholm.

In addition to the increasing number of homicides, non-fatal shootings, domestic abuse, reckless driving and drug overdoses are all high in Milwaukee.

"That unregulated behavior and the overwhelming presence of firearms is what's driving the problem," says Chisholm.

Not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic closed or disrupted support systems including social services, criminal intervention programs and schools.

"Do see though, the resilience of people sort of trickling up now and everyone is trying to come together," Chief Judge Triggiano says.

Chief Judge Triggiano says community groups, health officials, law enforcement and the judicial system collaborated to handle the pandemic. Now they’re doing the same thing dealing with the increasing violence.

"It's going to help us create a template for other crises that may come upon us where we created a really good playbook to try to figure out how to solve systemic issues in our community," says Triggiano.

This chart lays out the members of the Violence Reduction Public Health and Safety Team, or VR-PHAST. They meet weekly.

"My hope would be that this becomes a permanent fixture in our response to violence as a community," says Chisholm.

However, he says the plan won't work without funding. Chisholm believes money from the federal relief act should go toward overtime for law enforcement, supporting community groups and crime victims resources.

"The biggest ask I have is put aside the ideological differences and just focus on making sure that we're doing everything as a state, as a county and as a city to keep our people safe," says District Attorney John Chisholm.

Share this article: