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Q&A

Milwaukee County: Improving Judicial Decision Making

This is part of a series of Q&As Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research (APPR) conducted with pretrial justice experts nationwide. Their stories demonstrate the positive outcomes that result from leadership and commitment to comprehensive data- and evidence-informed pretrial policies.

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Jurisdictions nationwide process approximately 10 million jail admissions each year at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $14 billion. Seeking to create fair, just, and effective pretrial systems—using innovative policy solutions such as the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), diversion programs, and robust pretrial services—policymakers throughout the nation are establishing collaborative, purposeful, comprehensive, pretrial justice improvements.

APPR spoke with retired Milwaukee County Chief Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Kremers about the challenges his jurisdiction faced after crowded jails led them to examine pretrial decision making.

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Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research

What led to the decision to examine and make changes in Milwaukee County’s pretrial system? And what were some of the concerns you hoped would be addressed?

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Judge Jeffrey Kremers

We began making changes around 2010 when our jails were becoming more and more crowded. We also recognized that we had some of the highest disproportionate minority confinement in the country. African Americans and Latinos were significantly overrepresented not only in our jails but also in our prisons.

We looked at our data from the standpoint of racial disparities and the amount of money that held people in jail. We did a study that showed roughly 30 percent of the people held pretrial had bails of less than $500, many of them less than $150. This suggested that these were relatively minor cases. It also told us that we had an awful lot of poor folks in our jails. We took a look at this and agreed, “We have to do better.”

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Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research

What were some of the initial changes that Milwaukee County made?

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Judge Jeffrey Kremers

As part of a grant we received from the National Institute of Corrections, we brought in some experts from around the country to help us change the way we made release determinations. This was before the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) was developed, so we created our own risk assessment tool that was validated on Milwaukee County data. We also received another grant that enabled us to begin assessing everyone who was coming into our jails.

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Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research

What went into the decision to start using the PSA?

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Judge Jeffrey Kremers

We became interested in moving into the next generation of risk assessment for a couple of reasons. First, we were concerned about racial and gender bias, and believed the PSA was superior in this regard. Second, the fact that the PSA could be administered without an interview was a plus. That was of great interest because interviews and verifications are very labor intensive. The PSA also offered greater predictive accuracy. For these reasons, we applied to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation [now Arnold Ventures] to serve as a PSA pilot site.

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Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research

In addition to implementing the PSA, did you make other changes to your pretrial system?

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Judge Jeffrey Kremers

Yes. There are some people who can be released with just a court reminder and that’s all they need. But there are others who are at higher risk of pretrial failure who can also be safely released if they are monitored appropriately. So, we examined and realigned our pretrial monitoring system. We also created a system of differentiated responses to violations of release conditions.

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Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research

How did using the PSA support your system goals?

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Judge Jeffrey Kremers

We were able to release more people. And, as a result, we had many more successes than failures. Our data reflects that about 80% of those released return to court, with 12.5% arrested for a new crime while their cases were pending. [1] [2]

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Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research

How did the PSA factor into your pretrial decision-making process?

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Judge Jeffrey Kremers

The promise of the PSA was that it would help us do a better job of estimating pretrial success. Our previous tool gave us one score related to pretrial success. The PSA offered us more information: the likelihood of the person coming back to court, and their likelihood of remaining crime free. Being able to separate those factors helped us respond differentially, which was of great interest to us.

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Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research

How did the use of the violence flag help your decision making?

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Judge Jeffrey Kremers

The flag for serious violent risk was significant to us. The number of people it applied to is small, but it signaled us to take a much more careful look at the person, in combination with all of the other factors.

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Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research

Did your jurisdiction monitor data to evaluate how your system is performing? Tell us about how data was used.

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Judge Jeffrey Kremers

Key to all of this was data to guide our reforms. We had to totally revamp our data collection and reporting system to give us information about specific groups of people, programming, and outcomes. The data gave us a lot more clarity, and transparency. It also allowed us to take back the narrative and counter arguments in the media about the few bad cases. The data allowed us to tell a very different story.

References: [1] “Failure to appear” is defined as any missed court appearance while on release pending case disposition for the current case and a bench warrant or capias for arrest was authorized (issued or stayed). A failure to appear is not counted if there is confirmation that the person was in custody (jail or prison) when the failure to appear occurred. Beginning January 1, 2020, the FTA definition was updated to “the FTA will not be counted if: it is confirmed the individual is in custody, the BW was withdrawn or canceled the same day.[2] These data represent a total of all pretrial persons (n=11,883) between January 9, 2018 and December 31, 2019.