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This piece was produced for the NEW News Lab, a local news collaboration in Northeast Wisconsin.

Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative.

How did Wisconsin Watch and WPR confirm that Outagamie County Circuit Judge Vincent Biskupic is among few Wisconsin judges who regularly order defendants to open sentences — leaving some in limbo as he repeatedly called them back to court? That required a painstaking data analysis.

After learning from multiple attorneys about Biskupic’s uncommon sentencing practice, Wisconsin Watch and WPR hired Court Data Technologies (CDT), a Madison-based consulting firm that specializes in examining Wisconsin court data, to search and collect court records for certain cases that Biskupic handled. The search criteria included:

  • Cases in which a person pleaded guilty or was found guilty at trial on at least one count of their charges. 
  • Cases featuring a “probation review hearing,” “review” or “review hearing” after sentencing — or sentencing after probation was revoked.
  • Cases prosecuted between Jan. 1, 2014 through Jan. 1 of this year — to cover most of Biskupic’s time in office.

Biskupic oversaw 2,189 cases involving at least one conviction during that period, the data firm found. Eliminating cases that had no “probation review hearing,” “review” or “review hearing” listed in their dockets whittled the list to 142 cases. CDT sorted those cases into four categories: 

  • Cases in which probation was never imposed.
  • Cases in which probation was revoked and the court docket recorded a “probation review hearing,” “review” or “review hearing” after revocation.
  • Cases in which probation was imposed and the court docket recorded a “probation review hearing,” “review” or “review hearing” after probation likely ended, according to a CDT calculation.
  • Cases in which probation was imposed and the court docket showed a “probation review hearing,” “review” or “review hearing” after “full satisfaction” of the case.

After receiving the data, Wisconsin Watch and WPR reporters focused exclusively on cases in the first two categories: those in which probation was never imposed and cases in which probation was revoked — situations in which review hearings would likely be uncommon.

In these cases, Biskupic held “probation review hearings,” “reviews” or “review hearings” for defendants whom the Department of Corrections, which oversees probation in Wisconsin, did not actively monitor. Reporters eliminated cases in the last two categories because an initial imprecise records sweep included some cases featuring review hearings while someone was still serving probation. 

Wisconsin Watch and WPR reporters further winnowed the list to eliminate cases featuring common conditions for post-conviction review hearings. Reporters removed cases involving the Safe Streets Options Program, an Outagamie County treatment program for people convicted of intoxicated driving. Also removed: cases involving any of Outagamie County’s four treatment courts or programs offered by Criminal Justice Treatment Services, which provides rehabilitative programs for people in Outagamie County Jail and out in the community, such as CJTS Probation.

Next, reporters scrutinized each case to determine whether they included other conditions that would make Biskupic’s sentencing practices typical. That involved reviewing case dockets using the state’s Consolidated Court Automation Programs database and spending more than 20 hours reviewing case records at the Outagamie County Government Center. 

Further refining the data, reporters eliminated cases involving post-conviction hearings related to enforcing victim impact panel attendance, which state law clearly authorizes. Records obtained at the county government center — costing $1.25 per page — indicated that some of Biskupic’s “review hearings” dealt with requests for work release privileges or appeals. Reporters eliminated those from the data set, since they did not pertain to the types of review hearings in question. 

That left 52 unique cases in which Biskupic utilized uncommon, open-ended sentences. These fell into several categories: 

  • Sentence stayed for conditions Biskupic imposed. 
  • Sentence stayed for conditions Biskupic offered but a defendant did not take. 
  • De facto stay after Biskupic postponed the day a person needed to report to jail well past state law’s 60-day limit on stayed sentences. 
  • De facto supervision as Biskupic held hearings to monitor the payment of costs, fines or restitution. 

The 52 cases involved 46 different defendants and resulted in 199 review hearings.

CDT also collected data for judges statewide using the same criteria set for Biskupic’s cases. Using that dataset, reporters determined that Biskupic supervised defendants following revoked probation more than any other Wisconsin circuit court judge. After removing cases handled in treatment courts, veterans courts and numerous other specialized courts, and reviewing case files in person in Outagamie County, Wisconsin Watch and WPR determined that Biskupic presided over 142 review hearings for defendants whose probation had been revoked. 

The judge who held the second-most review hearings for similar defendants presided over no more than 67 hearings, according to the data firm’s analysis. And the true total may be lower, since a case-by-case review of the statewide data would likely eliminate additional cases in which review hearings were held for common reasons — as Wisconsin Watch and WPR found when scrutinizing each Biskupic case.

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Jack Kelly / Wisconsin Watch and WPR

Jack Kelly reports on politics, health care, agriculture and more in Wisconsin and the Midwest. Born and raised in the Milwaukee-area, he is a proud alumnus of both UW-Madison and Northwestern University. Jack's reporting has been published by the Wisconsin State Journal, The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., United Press International and dozens of other outlets.

Phoebe Petrovic / Wisconsin Watch and WPR

Phoebe Petrovic joined Wisconsin Watch in 2019 as a Report for America corps member. She is leading creation of an investigative podcast examining police and prosecutorial misconduct in Wisconsin. She formerly served as a general assignment reporter at Wisconsin Public Radio through the Lee Ester News Fellowship and, prior to that, was an editorial radio intern at “Reveal” from the Center for Investigative Reporting. She also worked as a producer for NPR’s “Here & Now” and a reporter for WCPN ideastream, Northeast Ohio’s NPR member station. Petrovic earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Yale University, where she founded and led audio projects including Herald Audio, the first-ever audio section of an undergraduate publication, and “Small-Great Objects,” the first-ever podcast series installed at Yale University Art Gallery.