Chapter 6: Milwaukee County, Wisconsin


Milwaukee County is the largest of Wisconsin’s counties. Its county seat is the city of Milwaukee. The county has a population of 957,735 (2015 U.S. Census Bureau). Its racial makeup is 65% white, 27% black or African American, and 14% Hispanic or Latino of any race (2015 U.S. Census Bureau). The median household income is $43,873, and 22.0% of the population live at or below the poverty line (2015 U.S. Census Bureau).

In calendar year 2015, 5,630 felony and 4,485 misdemeanor complaints were filed, in addition to 2,566 criminal traffic cases. The circuit court is composed of 47 nonpartisan circuit court judges elected by voters, 14 of whom handle felony cases and 7 of whom handle misdemeanors (Wisconsin Court System, 2016). The elected district attorney has approximately 125 assistants, while approximately 60 public defense attorneys handle adult criminal matters and 25 public defense attorneys handle juvenile, Children in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS), Termination of Parental Rights (TPR), and related cases under the auspices of the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office. Jail bookings in calendar years 2008, 2011, and 2014 were 42,179, 40,043, and 33,515, respectively.

  Profile of Milwaukee County’s Justice System


  Jail and House of Correction Rated Capacity


  Jail Bookings


  Jail Average Daily Population


  Felony Cases Filed


  Misdemeanor Cases Filed


  Probation Admissions


  Adult Probation Population


Several years prior to their selection as an EBDM pilot site, Milwaukee County formed a Community Justice Council (CJC) to ensure that efforts to reduce crime, support victims, and hold offenders accountable were coordinated and collaborative. The council was formed by county board resolution and is comprised of 27 members representing state and local government, criminal justice, and social services. The council’s focus on strategic planning and research to identify strategies to improve the justice system made the work of implementing the EBDM Framework a natural fit for the county.


The Milwaukee County EBDM Policy Team was formed in 2010 as a subset of the executive committee of the Milwaukee County Community Justice Council. The team includes the following elected officials and stakeholders:

  • the county executive;
  • the sheriff;
  • a county board member;
  • the district attorney;
  • the city mayor;
  • the chief judge of Milwaukee County Circuit Court, First Judicial District;
  • the city’s chief of police;
  • the State of Wisconsin first assistant public defender;
  • the executive director of the Benedict Center;
  • representatives from the Department of Corrections and the State Office of Justice Assistance;
  • the United States Marshal of the Eastern District of Wisconsin (ex officio);
  • the court’s pretrial services coordinator;
  • an inspector from the sheriff’s office; and
  • the presiding judge of the felony division of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.

The Milwaukee County EBDM Policy Team’s vision and mission statement reflects its commitment to public safety achieved through collaboration and the use of research to support decision making: “By applying what the evidence tells us about what actually works in protecting the community and holding offenders accountable, Milwaukee County’s criminal justice system will make the smartest possible use of its limited resources, continuously improving its performance against quantifiable goals and reinvesting the savings in programs that reduce crime in the first place.”

In Phases II and III of EBDM, the policy team was staffed by the coordinator of the Community Justice Council, a deputy district attorney, and a public defender. This was a strategic decision designed to ensure that the team’s EBDM work was built upon a foundation of strong collaboration between prosecution and defense (among other parties).


The early activities of the Milwaukee County EBDM Policy Team focused on establishing a high functioning collaborative team and following the EBDM Phase II planning roadmap. The roadmap assisted them with assessing their policies and practices at each of the EBDM decision points, determining the degree to which research evidence guided their decisions, and identifying strengths, challenges, and targets for future policy and practice change. Three of the areas that the team deemed to offer the greatest opportunity for improving risk and harm reduction outcomes were:

  • developing a pretrial management process that would ensure that release/detention decisions of pretrial defendants were informed by current research;
  • revising and expanding diversion and deferred prosecution (or “early intervention”) options to avoid traditional case processing, where appropriate, and to maximize the opportunity to support and encourage prosocial attitudes and behaviors among those who become involved in the justice system while minimizing the potential negative consequences that accrue to an individual involved in the system; and
  • developing and piloting a new approach to sentencing and probation supervision that allows probationers the opportunity to earn early termination from supervision by completing risk reducing interventions.

This case study offers a review of Milwaukee County’s Phase II/III efforts as they relate to these three change targets. For more information on the full range of change targets developed, see Milwaukee County’s Phase III implementation plan.


In 2015, Milwaukee County decided to take another step to improve its pretrial justice system by seeking to become an implementation site for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s Public Safety Assessment. Milwaukee County was ultimately selected, and after approximately one year of technical assistance, full implementation occurred in June 2016. This work also included development of a new pretrial decision-making framework. The decision to change from the MCPRAI-R to the PSA was based on the robust research and data behind the development of the PSA. In addition, the PSA does not use risk factors such as employment, residence, and substance abuse that could lead to disparities. This change marks an ongoing commitment by Milwaukee County justice system stakeholders to continuous system improvement by implementing the most current, evidence-based risk assessment instrument available.

In 2016, Milwaukee County was selected to receive $2 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as a participant in the Safety + Justice Challenge. Their efforts build on previous EBDM and JRI reform efforts and aim to reduce the length of jail stays for low level nonviolent misdemeanants, divert individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues, and provide more trauma-informed response options to professionals and community members.

As Wisconsin advances its EBDM efforts through Phase VI, Milwaukee County representatives continue their contribution to the Wisconsin State EBDM Policy Team’s efforts and, at the same time, will continue to meet to advance local strategies to improve performance and reduce harm in their local community.