Examining criminal court caseload, experience in the courtroom in the wake of Waukesha parade tragedy

The amount of violent crime in 2021 has grown - meaning a mounting caseload in Milwaukee Co. criminal courtrooms
Christmas Parade SUV
Posted at 5:27 AM, Dec 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-17 07:18:38-05

MILWAUKEE — A growing caseload on an overworked system is what officials are pointing to following the “inappropriately low” bail set for Darrell Brooks, the man accused of driving his car into a holiday parade in Waukesha, killing six.

Milwaukee is on pace to break its annual record for homicides again, the second time it's been broken in the last two years. When it was broken last year, it had stood for nearly 30.

The amount of violent crime in 2021 has grown as well, meaning a mounting caseload in Milwaukee County criminal courtrooms.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said the Assistant District Attorney assigned to the Brooks case made the life-altering bail decisions, essentially on the spot, while prepping for another case headed to trial. He was released on a $1,000 bail, recommended by the ADA.

Last week he said he was not making excuses, instead offering explanations into what happened.

“There's never a margin of error,” Chisholm said last Thursday. “That's why when you're doing this job, you have to bring your A-game. That's it.”

The ADA assigned to that case had two years of experience out of law school, and was handling nearly 300 domestic abuse cases, many of which were felonies.

HOBE Brooks Bail ADA 2.png

Chisholm said 58 of his 120 prosecutors have transitioned out of his office, and those who remain are getting younger.

According to the most recent roster the I-Team could find from last year, 30 ADAs graduated law school in 2016 or later.

Chisholm said many may work a few years and move on to higher-paying jobs.

HOBE Brooks Bail ADA 1.png

“That’s the economic reality of working in the Milwaukee County DA’s office,” Chisholm said.

Meanwhile, the court is playing catch-up with a backlog of cases stemming from the pandemic.

'Justice delayed': MKE Co. DA, Chief Judge say criminal case backlog could take 2 years to overcome

The I-Team asked former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, distinguished professor of law at Marquette Law School, about caseloads. She was on the bench in Milwaukee County when the homicide record was broken in 1991.

“Caseload is not an excuse for a mistake or misjudgments,” Geske said. “It's an explanation of why it may happen but it's important each case is handled on its merits.”

She says bail hearings may only take 10 minutes, but it’s up to all involved to have the facts in front of them to do their job, even with a mounting backlog.

“Depending on how rushed you are and things you have to worry about, it's harder to spend the time on it, but that's the job,” Geske said. “That's the oath you take.”

While prosecutors make the bail recommendations, the judge or court commissioner actually sets the bail.

In the Brooks case, the court commissioner was actually listed as a children’s court commissioner, according to the county’s website.

Of the 23 domestic abuse cases he’s presided over in 2021 where bail was set, 16 were set at $1,000 or less, including one signature bond where the defendant was not required to actually pay the set dollar amount.

“As a judge, you worry about those things,” Geske said. “You worry about them on bail, but even worry more in sentencing. “

The court commissioner in this case has been taken off felony cases indefinitely.

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