Student Fellowship

Establishing and Developing a Municipal Community Court

Project Area:

Community-centered Justice


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Reporting to:

Chief of Staff

The Challenge

Building a community where every Milwaukeean—regardless of race, income, or neighborhood—can live a safe, healthy, and secure life is a key priority for Mayor Cavalier Johnson. The city of Milwaukee, like many large cities around the country, has struggled to reduce crime and sustain reduced crime rates, especially during and after the pandemic. Since 2020, the city has seen a reduction in certain types of major crimes (e.g., burglary, assaults, and arson), but large spikes in others, such as motor vehicle thefts and shootings. The city is also experiencing a notable increase in juvenile offenses, particularly auto theft and reckless driving.1 The mayor and his administration see an opportunity to divert offenders, especially young people who engage in low level non-violent civil offenses like auto theft and reckless driving, from a path that could lead to more severe and frequent criminal activity. City leaders believe that a municipal community court that co-locates community and social services and resources (like health services, housing assistance, job training, education, and substance use support) with the court would allow the city to engage directly with nonviolent offenders, especially young people, in a more personal and community-centered manner that sets defendants up for success in avoiding recidivism and more serious offences.

City leaders hope that the implementation of a community court would have a twofold effect: First, to create alternatives to traditional court and sentencing procedures that improve the likelihood of offenders engaging with the court and complying with sentencing,2 and second, to address the root causes, both environmental and social, of a nonviolent crime. Under the current court system, many offenders become trapped in an escalating cycle of unpaid forfeitures, warrants, and other punitive measures. In addition, traditional municipal court sentences like forfeitures can be inequitable because of the outsized burden they place on low-income offenders who, in Milwaukee, are very likely to also be people of color. Moreover, when people do not come to court, the judges lack the opportunity to work with the defendant on a non-monetary solution.  

Since 2015, the City of Milwaukee’s Municipal Court and City Attorney’s Office have provided opportunities to lift municipal warrants and address underlying behavioral issues with innovative alternatives to prosecution. For example, the Municipal Court judges held court in the community through their series, “Warrant Withdrawal Wednesdays,” offering an opportunity for defendants to lift their warrants while providing on-site resources, such as the DMV to reinstate driver’s licenses. The City of Milwaukee has also created a Community Action Team to collect suggestions from the community as to what and how all stakeholders can address nonviolent offenses committed by juvenile offenders. The city also recently launched a Vision Zero initiative to combat reckless driving. 

Prior to the fellow’s start, it is likely that the city will have identified a location for the municipal community court that improves the likelihood of defendants appearing in court (with free parking, bus line access, non-court related amenities, etc.) and presence outside of its current location in the police headquarters. Some initial groundwork and research on promising models in the U.S. and case studies will also be an important input into the fellow’s work. Working closely with the Community Courts Implementation team, the summer fellow will seek to answer the following key questions: 

  • What should be the guidelines for the types of cases/charges handled by the community court? What are the estimated caseloads? (Initial analysis and internal recommendations should be created by this time, but the fellow should review, edit, and approve as necessary.)
  • Why are people not showing up to court? What would help make the court a more approachable government entity? 
  • What are the resources and services that should be co-located with the community court? What do the community partners/external stakeholders need to agree on to co-locate and partner with the court?
  • What needs to be included in a business plan for this project and what does that plan look like?
  • How would we measure success of the court? What metrics would be most meaningful, and how would we track, analyze, and utilize the data?
  • What would a follow-up system include, the purpose of which is to stay connected with people who engage with the community court?

What You’ll Do

To address these questions, the fellow will accomplish the following key tasks: engage with internal and external stakeholders (including but not limited to Municipal Court Judges, social service agencies, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College ); extract key learnings from best practices and case study research conducted to date of other community courts in the US; extract key learnings from an analysis of court caseload and sentencing data to establish/approve the estimated caseload that would be handled by a community court; design, administer, and analyze a community survey to understand what keeps people from showing up to court and what the broader community thinks would be valuable in terms of services and resources for co-locating with the community court; offer recommendations for a community outreach strategy; create a business plan (not including a financial plan) for the project; develop recommendations for measuring success of the community court, including recommended metrics and developing a tracking system; working with the municipal court to conceive of a system for staying connected with people who engage with the community court; and working with team leaders on outreach to community organizations targeted for partnership with the community court. Key deliverables include: 

  1. A deck that includes summaries of key learnings from community surveys, interviews with community leaders, and recommendations for ongoing outreach with community partners.
  2. A high-level business plan (based on learnings from stakeholder engagement, promising practices research and case studies, caseload analysis, and a community survey) for the administration to follow when creating a community court. The business plan should also include recommendations for measuring success of the community court (i.e., metrics) and a system for following up with court-engaged people.
  3. Presentation to the mayor, common council, Milwaukee Municipal Court judges and administrators, and other key stakeholders.

What You’ll Bring

The fellow will be expected to possess the following skills: 

  • Data analysis and survey design
  • Qualitative interviewing and analysis
  • Policy analysis
  • Design thinking 
  • Human centered design
  • Writing and editing
  • Stakeholder engagement and management
  • Optimism and a learning mindset 

1  For example, total motor vehicle thefts increased 99% between December 2020 and 2022. Juvenile arrests for vehicle theft increased from 263 in 2020 to 408 in 2022.  (Source: Milwaukee Police Department Office of Management Analysis and Planning).

2 These alternatives may include community service, driving courses, sentencing diversions, deferred prosecution, drug treatment, and other mandated use of services. The Court currently contracts with a vendor, JusticePoint to do this work.

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