COVID and Milwaukee County courts; pandemic creates backlog of cases

COVID-19 and the pandemic are touching all parts of society including the court system in Milwaukee County. While jury trials resumed last summer, the courts are dealing with a backlog of cases – especially the criminal variety.

"COVID’s a problem. I don’t need to belabor my situation from last week," said Milwaukee County Circuit  Court Judge David Borowski.

At least one homicide trial has been delayed until next week because of positive COVID cases.

Milwaukee County Courthouse

Chief Judge Mary Triggiano tells FOX6 News the court does not keep track of what caused a case to be adjourned. But of the 12 jury trials last week, only one occurred. Others could have been resolved, dismissed, or adjourned for other reasons besides COVID-19.

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Triggiano said this week is better. Of 12 jury trials, four started on Monday, two on Tuesday, and a couple more are set for Wednesday. However, COVID-19 continues to clog the system. 

"While our backlog is significant because we do a high volume of cases in Milwaukee, it is still attainable to clear it, if we do creative things with scheduling and bring in more resources," the chief judge said.

That includes opening up new courts with reserve judges to decrease the backlog. But that process is hampered right now because of a lack of staffing. 

Staffing is also a problem at the Milwaukee County Jail – as the numbers of those in custody number more than 900. More than 200 of those are COVID-positive.

Milwaukee County Jail

Milwaukee County Jail

"I’m handling double the number of cases I was two years ago," said Allison Ritter, Milwaukee criminal defense attorney.

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Ritter said she knows judges, the district attorney's office, and others are doing the best they can with the hand they have been dealt. But she said the numbers are not sustainable.

"This calendar’s not going to flush itself out. It’s not going to happen. We need a plumber. Because it is stuck," Ritter said.

Ritter pointed to the district attorney's office as the one entity that can help.

The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office stated, "When an adjournment is needed in one trial, another Assistant District Attorney is ready to do a different one, and that has proven to be the case so far in 2022."

But there is always the possibility of something, like an illness, causing a trial to be rescheduled.

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