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Milwaukee County Takes Steps To Reduce Number Of Inmates During Coronavirus Pandemic

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Alesandra Tejeda
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The Milwaukee County Jail has been housing inmates in single cells, so there are fewer COVID-19 cases there than at the congregate setting in the House of Correction.

At the Milwaukee County House of Correction in Franklin, 94 inmates have COVID-19 as of Thursday – out of an on-site population of about 600. There are three cases at the jail in downtown Milwaukee. To help prevent the coronavirus from spreading among people incarcerated, some key players are trying to limit the number of people in custody. 

Milwaukee County Chief Judge Mary Triggiano says it's important that no outbreak occurs in the jail or House of Correction since it would ultimately impact the hospitals. There would be fewer beds and supplies and more strain on care providers, she says.

READ: Underwear Masks, Mandatory Work & Solitary Confinement: Wisconsin Inmates Under Coronavirus

In mid-March, courtrooms were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Since cases weren’t getting processed, the jail population was increasing. So, Milwaukee County set up three courts to function during the pandemic, one handling all intake of new cases and preliminary hearings.

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Credit Maayan Silver
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The Milwaukee County Courthouse sized down from more than 20 criminal courts to three courts during the pandemic.

Then, local officials implemented both front-end and back-end strategies. Deputy Chief Judge Carl Ashley describes one, involving misdemeanor warrants.

"If law enforcement comes in contact with individuals in the community who have a misdemeanor, rather than bringing them to the jail, they're told to contact a lawyer or the public defender's office," he says. "Because, again, it's focusing on public safety and right now, we want to save those limited spaces for people who are more of a public safety risk."

There are exceptions for domestic violence and gun charges says Chief Judge Triggiano.

"In our community, domestic violence seems to be ramping up and becoming more deadly," she says. "So we're very careful about some of the cases that we have or excluding others from some of the orders."

READ: Fearing COVID In Wisconsin Prisons & Jails, Advocates Call For Selective Inmate Release

Triggiano adds that the number of people already in custody is being whittled down.

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Credit Maayan Silver
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Without a fully functioning court system, which allows judges to hear bail arguments, motion hearings and sentencings, people can languish in custody.

"We looked at inmates who are low risk, some that were close to the end of their sentence," she says. "We looked at those that needed victim notification and did victim notification so that we included their voice in this process. We looked at other categories like women, older populations or those that might have significant mental health issues."

Triggiano then issued an order to release a variety of inmates, including some with fewer than two months left on their sentence. And she says the local jails have pretty much maxed out their electronic monitoring capabilities.

The efforts have created enough room to offset the people coming in, says Tom Reed, head of the Milwaukee Trial Office of the State Public Defender.

"Unfortunately, people continue to be arrested. And because of the various efforts to control the population, most of the people arrested and booked into the jail today are there on fairly serious matters," Reed says.

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Credit Maayan Silver
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As long as there’s no fully operating court system with ways to resolve cases quickly, Reed says without the release strategies the institutions could fill back up to unwieldy levels.

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WUWM's full conversation with Milwaukee County Chief Judge Mary Triggiano, Deputy Chief Judge Carl Ashley, District Attorney John Chisholm and First Assistant of the Milwaukee Trial Office of the State Public Defender Tom Reed.

Meanwhile, as the pandemic rages on, officials are already thinking about the full court system opening up again. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm admits it could be tough to convince jurors to report to duty.

"If you're facing lengthy time in prison, if you're asserting that you didn't commit the crime, there's only one way that that's resolved, and that's a jury trial. But the reality is, who wants to come into the courthouse for eight hours, sitting 6 inches away from another person?" he asks.

Chisholm says it would be difficult to hold jury trials virtually because it would be hard to keep track of whether jurors are paying attention. 

Chisholm says another hardship could be the balkanization of criminal justice across various counties, like if neighboring counties are able to open up their courthouses and Milwaukee, with its high level of COVID cases, has to remain relatively shuttered.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has created a statewide task force to recommend how courts can safely continue proceedings, including jury trials.

Until then, criminal justice players will be working to keep the numbers of incarcerated people down. 

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.

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