Public Policy Forum Blog

An intergovernmental effort to address criminal justice system inefficiencies

Milwaukee's Community Justice Council, formed late last year to promote a coordinated, intergovernmental approach to solving problems confronting Milwaukee's justice system, is beginning to tackle meaty issues as budget season arrives.

The Council was formed at the initiative of Sheriff David Clarke following a 2006 Federal audit that cited Milwaukee's failure to properly coordinate jail population management and other criminal justice activities. Following a model used successfully by dozens of other communities, Milwaukee's council is chaired by Chief Judge Kitty Brennan and includes the sheriff, district attorney, county executive, mayor, police chief and public defender's office, among others.

The Council's mission is to seat the appropriate parties at the same table to work together on systemic issues. A key discussion item thus far has been how to preserve jail, House of Correction and work release beds for those who truly merit them, while utilizing other, more cost-effective and possibly safer strategies for those who do not.

Consideration of the county executive's proposal to make greater use of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology for monitoring offenders on work release has been high on the Council's agenda. So has a proposal by the county's criminal court coordinator to utilize a risk assessment tool to provide the DA and courts with better information for use in considering whether and how to charge and set bail.

The Public Policy Forum has served as the Council's research arm and has prepared a number of research reports, including the following:

  • Our analysis of GPS as an alternative to having offenders spend the night at the Community Corrections Center emphasizes the need to establish clear objectives for the program (e.g. save on incarceration costs or enhance public safety?). We suggest that while GPS may have significant potential as part of Milwaukee's "alternatives to incarceration" toolbox, its use as a mechanism to shut down the county's work release center may be problematic.
  • Our analysis of the existing population housed at the work release center shows a significant percentage are convicted drunk drivers, raising the question of whether there may be safer, more effective and less costly ways to punish and reform these offenders.
  • Our research on universal screening/risk assessment of those entering the criminal justice system indicates this is a widely used best practice. We suggest that any serious effort to safely reduce pre-trial incarceration days, increase diversions and otherwise develop a coordinated approach for effectively and safely managing the county's corrections population must include comprehensive screening. Our recommendation to immediately consider a 2009 budget initiative to implement this strategy was endorsed by the full Council earlier this week.

At a time when both municipal and county budgets are under siege and are being driven in part by skyrocketing law enforcement and incarceration costs, effective coordination of justice system issues is key. The Community Justice Council is just the right mechanism for promoting such coordination, and now is just the right time to turn words into action.

Rob Henken