Under Pressure

The Milwaukee County Justice System’s Recovery from COVID-19

August 2023


Video Summary

Since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Milwaukee County – like many other communities across the United States – has seen a surge in homicides and, at least initially, in other types of violent crime. Overall rates of violent crime and other serious offenses (particularly car thefts) have leveled off recently, and property-related crime rates are considerably lower than they were before the turn of the century. Nevertheless, public safety continues to be one of the central issues on the minds of both policymakers and residents as recovery from the pandemic continues.

This top-of-mind status has turned the spotlight on the functioning of Milwaukee County’s justice system. Some have questioned whether certain justice system policy changes driven by the pandemic may have contributed to increased violent crime, while others have posited that societal factors – including the tenuous nature of the national and local economy and changes in social interactions since the pandemic – could have played a role in any elevated crime levels.

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. Several elements of that stress continue to linger to this day, and they have now been compounded by an historically tight labor market and other fiscal and economic factors that are affecting employee turnover and the speed with which positions can be filled.

In this report – commissioned by the Milwaukee-based Argosy Foundation and the Milwaukee Community Justice Council (CJC) – we seek to provide greater understanding of how the pandemic and subsequent challenges have impacted the workings of the justice system in Milwaukee County and its effective functioning.

We start by analyzing data regarding critical points of the justice system pipeline, from reported offenses to arrests, charges, and dispositions by the courts. In doing so, we explore how key data points changed during the height of the pandemic and the extent to which they have now rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Based on that trend analysis and key informant interviews, we then provide insights on how systemic issues may be continuing to disrupt the flow of cases through the system.

Among the key questions we seek to address are the following:

  • What parts of the pipeline have been impacted most by the pandemic and to what extent are they returning to a pre-pandemic “normal”?
  • What are the impacts of systemic challenges and how pressing is the need to address them?
  • Where should policymakers be prioritizing attention and resources to restore the “regular” functioning of the Milwaukee County justice system?

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. However, this report on its own cannot provide a firm conclusion on whether there may be a causal link between systemic justice system challenges and crime rates. Still, by assessing the system’s current functioning, we are able to provide perspective on the nature and scope of those challenges and shed some insight into those that require the immediate attention of policymakers. Continue reading…