Participants in Milwaukee County’s criminal justice system believe the courts will come back from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger than it was before.
Milwaukee County Chief Judge Mary Triggiano, Municipal Judge Derek Mosley, District Attorney John Chisholm and Regional Attorney Manager Tom Reed of the State Public Defender’s Office talked about justice in the time of COVID during Marquette University Law School’s “On the Issues” program on Friday.
Triggiano estimated that the courts are operating with about 40% of their proceedings being in person. Most of those are criminal jury trials and criminal plea and sentencing hearings. She said the comparable percentage is similar for children’s court. The courts are re-evaluating their operations daily to ensure those who coming to the courthouse remain safe and to prevent court proceedings from contributing to the spread of the virus.
Reed said people generally see the courthouse as a safe place that has put various protective measures in place. However, until the pandemic is under control, he said the criminal-justice system will have to take into account the fact that many people still don’t feel comfortable appearing in person.
The group meanwhile expressed the belief that some of the changes that the pandemic forced upon the criminal-justice system are improvements from past practices.
Mosley said virtual proceedings have made it a lot less expensive to come to court. And more people have become comfortable with the idea of going to trial because they can now do so from the comfort of their homes. The pandemic has also led to a reduction in the number of people held at the Milwaukee County jail, the House of Corrections and in secure detention.
Chisholm said the DA’s office and the public defender’s office have worked around the clock to identify who should be released so the jail population can be reduced enough to have only one person for each cell.
Triggiano said everyone involved in the justice system agreed from the start of the pandemic to make a communication a priority.
“I think that relieves some of the stress of the unknown,” Triggiano said.
Mosley, who battled COVID in March, said he made it a point to communicate with his colleagues even while in the ICU because safety had become a matter of personal importance to him.
“I got so close to death that I realized that there are things more important than just what we’re doing on a daily basis,” Mosley said.
The group also acknowledged that working remotely has not come without costs. Reed said virtual settings can hinder attorneys’ ability to connect with clients and pick up on non-verbal signals during proceedings.
“You just can’t do that in the same way when you are working remotely,” Reed said.
Chisholm said he and his assistant DAs also miss the opportunities to get to know clients and colleagues that come from working in person.
“Yes, we can do our jobs, but … the form in which we operate best is person-to-person so you can actually see the humanity in front of you,” Chisholm said.
Reed said casual chats between attorneys at the back of the courtroom or on an elevator can help resolve conflicts.
“For those one-on-one conversations where people need to be in the presence of each other to get to where they need to get to, we just don’t have as much of that and that contributes to the backlogs,” Reed said.
Chisholm said he felt a strong sense of urgency for the courts to normal operations as quickly and as safely as possible. He thinks a lack of connection in society is contributing to high homicide and suicide rates.
Triggiano said thinks the repeated calls for social justice over the summer also helped expedite the courts’ reassessment and improvement of their practices.
“Pre-pandemic, we were all striving for that, but this has just given us more urgency to do that,” Triggiano said.