Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
On the sixth floor of the Milwaukee County Courthouse, 61-year-old Jeffrey Kremers is discussing his pescatarianism when he’s interrupted by seagull squawks outside. (“Don’t get me talking,” he says, “about what they do to my car every night.”) In his second full term as Milwaukee County Circuit Court’s chief judge, he hears lots of other squawking, too. Kremers is, after all, responsible for administering Wisconsin’s largest and busiest judicial district: 47 judges and around 150,000 cases annually, including some 60,000 of the adult criminal variety. Along with the clerk of courts, he oversees about $30 million in tax levy dollars. And through projects like the Milwaukee County Community Justice Council – where leaders of legal, law enforcement, government and community agencies pinpoint ways to improve the justice system – he advocates for consensus-based solutions. That hasn’t prevented public disputes with Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke (also a CJC member) on many issues. But it’s one way the Milwaukee-reared Kremers fulfills his self-imposed duty of community service, a mandate he says was instilled by his father and has guided his legal career of nearly 40 years.
Why did you want to become a judge?
It’s hard to answer and not sound like you’re being egotistical. As I worked as a trial lawyer, I saw a lot of different kinds of judges and court systems, and I felt I had the skills that would allow me to do a better job of running a courtroom than a lot of other ones.
What’s the state of Milwaukee County’s court system?
If you want to compare us to other urban areas of the same size, I’d say we’re in really good shape. Could we do things better? Absolutely. But I think we get a lot of things right. We are a model for domestic violence courts and juvenile court proceedings. We were one of three cities in the country chosen for the National Institute of Corrections evidence-based decision-making grant, which is helping us change how we make pretrial release decisions.
What are the most challenging issues facing the system?
The ability to identify people that really pose a risk to our community, identifying them as early as possible in their life, then making sure we have the resources to bring to bear on those people. Those resources might be jail or prison. But there are lots of people that, given an opportunity, we can get on the right track. We need to identify those people so we don’t have them cycling back through.
What should the public know about the Community Justice Council?
That we exist. Our name is Milwaukee County Community Justice Council, and we did that on purpose. We wanted to be a community organization that’s bigger than what people think about when they say the criminal justice system. Most people think that’s the courts and law enforcement. But if that’s where you focus your attention, you will never really address the problems. Because all the problems we have are community-based.
What are the council’s biggest accomplishments?
Establishing relationships where we can part the political agendas, the separate constituencies, and say, “What do we need to do to work better as a community?” Within that context, we achieved the NIC grant. We’ve got another project we’re working on with respect to mental health. It’s crisis intervention training for police officers. Another aspect of it is early identification of people best suited for deferred prosecution or a diversion.
How do you respond to people who say these initiatives are examples of being soft on crime?
I don’t think it’s about being soft on crime; we need to be smart on crime. We’re data-driven. What does the data show us? What will we achieve? What will be the impact on public safety? What will be the impact on recidivism? To me, that’s being tough on crime.
What’s at the core of the conflicts with Sheriff Clarke?
I’m not going to talk about issues with the sheriff. I have a responsibility to administer the court system as I think best, to ensure we are making best use of community resources, that we’re being as mindful of public safety as we can. And I do that in the way that I think most appropriate. The public is not well served by having this, any of this, be a dispute between the sheriff and the chief judge.
How has the political landscape affected the court system?
The worst thing for this system of government is for people to say, “I know these judges were appointed by a Republican or appointed by a Democrat, or they’re Republicans in their background or Democrats, and therefore, I can tell you how this case is going to turn out.” We need to fight that issue more than any other to maintain the significance of what our country is all about. If we lose that perspective – that the courts are impartial and making decisions based on the law and the facts – if we lose that trust in our system, we have lost a lot.
How many people do you think have already reached that conclusion?
I don’t know. Maybe I don’t want to think about it. But if they don’t accept the design and truthfulness of our court system today, we need to try and do better tomorrow.