MILWAUKEE — A massive criminal case backlog continues to grow in Milwaukee County and it’s resulting in delayed justice for victims.
District Attorney John Chisholm said the pandemic, coupled with unprecedented crime rates, is to blame for criminal cases potentially taking up to two years longer than usual to be resolved.
Mary Ann Boulden was a Milwaukee mother of three and beloved as the peacemaker of her family.
“She was just a normal working citizen that went to work and come home. Go to work and come home,” said Boulden’s brother, Marvin Clinton.
Clinton said his sister was taking an Uber ride home from work in February of 2020 when she became an unintended target in a triple shooting on the city’s north side.
The suspect was caught, but he has yet to go to trial. Clinton said the district attorney’s office told him the pandemic is causing the delays.
”It’s like prolonging the agony that we have already dealt with,” Clinton said.
District Attorney Chisholm shares the same frustrations.
“We’ve been dealing with two major crises at the same time,” he explained. “The first is the obvious public health crisis, and the second one and of equal magnitude, quite frankly, is the public safety crisis.”
Boulden was one of 190 homicide victims in 2020, which is more than double the number from 2019 - and the most ever recorded in Milwaukee.
Non-fatal shootings also skyrocketed, jumping from 444 victims in 2019 to 755 in 2020. That figure is the highest in at least a decade.
Consequently, Chisholm says more than 3,000 suspects are awaiting official criminal charges, and the courts are only operating at 30 to 40 percent capacity due to COVID-19 precautions.
“What that means of course is you’re just backlogging and backlogging and backlogging and backlogging,” he said.
The Milwaukee County court system shut down criminal case trials last year from March until late July. Since then, just four out of 11 designated courts have opened for jury trials in order to maintain social distancing requirements.
“That means a lot of victims aren’t getting their cases heard, and quite frankly that means a lot of defendants are still out in the community, and this causes concern to the community as a whole,” Chisholm said.
Milwaukee County’s Chief Judge Mary Triggiano said they’ve only been able to hear about 60 criminal jury trials in the past year. That’s far less than the hundreds which normally go from trial to sentencing.
“I think we have upwards of 400 in-custody speedy trials and other trials in the criminal division waiting to be tried,” Triggiano said.
Triggiano said the Milwaukee County court system is dealing with an 18-24 month backlog in criminal cases. That means victims and defendants could be waiting two years longer than usual for justice or resolution in their cases.
“I don’t think anybody should have to wait that long to have their cases resolved,” Triggiano said.
Clinton said the district attorney’s office assured him his sister’s case will be heard sometime in 2021. The suspect’s trial is currently slated for May.
“When you’re looking for closure, you’ve got a person in custody, suspect in custody formally charged but then the system drags on for over a year,” Clinton said.
To make that happen, Triggiano said the court system is working to double the amount of jury trial rooms by May, but Chisholm believes vaccinations are the key factor to getting closer to 100-percent.
Public-facing essential workers are next in line in Wisconsin to be offered the vaccine. As of March 16, prosecutors, public defenders and court personnel were eligible as front line workers, effective immediately.