Tina Freiburger, chair of UWM’s Criminal Justice Department, researches the courts and judicial decision-making. She explores how discrepancies related to gender, race, ethnicity and age impact sentencing decisions and assesses the results of judicial initiatives. Community partnerships are integral to her work, and among her active projects are studies about eviction cases and recidivism rates. She’s also exploring the targeted, systemic integration of trauma-informed care – an approach that recognizes how past trauma affects people – into the judicial process. The driving force behind her research: discovering how courts can function in the most effective and equitable manner.
How are you involved with the Eviction Defense Project?
In Milwaukee County, fewer than 1 percent of people facing eviction have legal representation. Because it’s a civil matter, they don’t have any legal right to representation, like in a criminal matter. Through Legal Action of Wisconsin, pro bono attorneys provide representation. They help negotiate with a landlord and hopefully avoid an eviction.
Once people have an eviction on their record, it’s publicly accessible and makes it very hard for them to find another place to rent. My role is to see if there is a change in outcomes for people with legal representation. It’s still preliminary, but we’ve found that people feel their outcomes are better. They’ve been able to avoid a lot of evictions. Where there is an eviction, they’ve been able, in most cases, to get it sealed.
How are you and the courts exploring trauma-informed care?
That project involves a partnership with the Adult Drug Treatment Court and the Veterans Treatment Initiative in Milwaukee County, as well as the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division. The purpose is to introduce more evidence-based practices in trauma-informed care to see if it can make those specialty courts more effective and improve outcomes. We are working with providers to implement those treatment models. Most people in the court have experienced trauma. If that trauma – physical, emotional, sexual – is treated, can it enhance their outcomes or make them less likely to recidivate?
What are the connections between racial disparities in sentencing and reoffending rates?
Using Milwaukee County sentencing data from 2009, we found that young, black males were significantly less likely to receive a sentence of probation, as opposed to jail, than all other groups. There is a racial disparity. Young, black men are given jail instead of probation. They actually receive shorter jail sentences than other groups. Still, even though it’s a short sentence, they are more likely to be incarcerated, which can affect employment stability, family stability, community ties. Those things, we know, are related to recidivism. I’m working with the Milwaukee County Office on African American Affairs to build a comprehensive database. We’ll be able to examine whether there are racial disparities in recidivism rates after they leave the House of Correction.
What’s the importance of all these projects?
To really get an idea if we are operating in a fair and effective way. If people are being punished differently based on extralegal factors, then the court is not really functioning as effectively as it could. Criminal justice is an applied discipline. It’s not uncommon for somebody’s research to be heavily applied to the discipline, like mine is. I find it incredibly rewarding. I learn a lot working with agencies. The community partners I have are truly incredible. They are really interested in making the system better.