Jill Karofsky

Jill Karofsky

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Branch 12


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1. Why are you running for judge? What is your background?

I am running for Judge because we face challenges in our criminal justice system including racial disparity and access to justice. I want to use my 25 years of experience in the criminal justice system to help address those challenges.

I have dedicated my career to helping ensure there is equal justice and access to justice for all. That is what I want to do as a Judge.

Over the course of my career, I have handled more than 10,000 cases of the exact kind this judge will hear. I’ve been the lead attorney in dozens of jury trials in Dane County Courts. I know firsthand, that in court, we are seeing people when they at a most vulnerable time of their lives. That’s why I have been a strong, compassionate, and effective advocate for a system that treats everyone fairly, justly, and makes sure everyone’s voice is heard.

I began my career at the Dane County District Attorney’s office. I worked for four District Attorneys from both political parties – Foust, Nicks, Brophy and Blanchard. I handled sensitive and high profiles cases, interacting with both juveniles and adults, both victims and defendants. I was a member of my union, the Association of State Prosecutors.

I served for nine years (2001-2010) as the chief attorney (General Counsel) for the National Conference of Bar Examiners, a national non-profit organization headquartered in Madison.

In 2010, I choose to apply to be Wisconsin’s first Violence Against Women Resource Prosecutor because of my commitment to making the system work better for some of the most vulnerable people in it. Every day in that job, I was able to use my legal skills to help women and children who were victims of sexual assault and domestic violence find justice. When the opportunity arose to expand that work and also have an impact on how all parts of the system work together, I jumped at the chance to apply to become the Director of Wisconsin’s Office of Crime Victim Services. I have served in that role, again a legal role, since 2011.

I am a graduate of Duke University and I earned dual degrees in Law and Public Policy rom the UW Law School and the LaFollette School of Public Affairs in 1992. Since 2005, I have been an adjunct professor at the UW Law School. I have attached a resume/fact sheet to the end of this questionnaire.

In this campaign, I am honored to be endorsed by Madison Teachers, Inc.; the last three Democratic governors of Wisconsin (Schreiber, Earl, and Doyle); every Dane County Constitutional Officer who has endorsed is supporting me including Sheriff Mahoney, District Attorney Ozanne, and County Clerk McDonell; State Senator Jon Erpenbach; State Representative Lisa Subeck; and more than 40 Judges including 23 past or current Dane County Judges who know this job best. These are individuals who know me, often for many years, who know my values and my work, and who trust me to be a fair, impartial, thoughtful Judge on the Dane County bench.


2. Dane County’s criminal justice system faces some of the worst racial disparities in the country. What will you do to address disparities in the criminal justice system?

Racial disparity does not start in the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is, instead, the end to a story that begins much earlier—the result of disparity in access to health care, educational opportunities, housing and beyond.

Judges and others in the criminal justice system need to recognize the societal disparity that, while not the sole cause of the issues in the criminal justice system, helps fuel the racial disparity in that system. The first step is for judges to have the awareness and humility to think about—and confront—their own potential biases. There are also some concrete steps that can be taken to help correct the imbalance

First, judges can encourage new approaches in setting bail so that defendants aren’t being unnecessarily locked up because they cannot afford bail. Dane County is currently piloting an evidence-based approach to setting bail. I strongly support such efforts.

Second, judges can play a part in addressing the issue of disparity by supporting diversion initiatives such as restorative justice courts, treatment courts, and specialty courts. Restorative Justice helps keep young people out of the system by providing a different forum in which to adjudicate and resolve certain offenses. Diversion courts provide a way for defendants to get the drug and alcohol, mental health, and other treatment that they were often deprived of before entering the criminal justice system—often without any conviction at all.

Third, judges must work with communities of color, law enforcement, defense attorneys, victim advocates, and prosecutors to study and identify other steps courts can take to be part of the solution.

Fourth, judges must openly talk about the racial-disparity issue—both in terms of the criminal justice system and the larger societal issues that lead to it. Judges, who are front and center in witnessing the problem, must help people understand the issue so true reform, not just in the criminal justice system but beyond, can occur.


3. What changes do you feel are needed in criminal justice to avoid disproportionately punishing low-income people?

People who are in the criminal justice system are in a crisis, whatever their income level. But being in the criminal justice system is particularly difficult for people with low incomes. There are several steps that could be taken to reduce the disproportionate burden on the poor:

  • Judges can develop new approaches to bail-setting to ensure that people are not confined before trial solely because they cannot afford bail. Bail should truly be tied to defendants’ dangerousness and likelihood of fleeing before trial.
  • Judges need to recognize that many people who end up in the criminal justice system do so because they were deprived of drug, mental health, or other treatment. Judges should leverage the criminal justice system to help people get the treatment and support that they were not previously able to access. Diversion and treatment courts help turn lives around, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars on incarceration costs, dollars that can and should be invested elsewhere.
  • Judges should consider carefully the fines they impose. Fines can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars in individual cases. Fines have a disproportionate effect on those with low incomes, who may be unable to pay them.
  • When setting court hearings, when granting extensions and excusing absences, and when setting conditions for bail or probation, judges need to be mindful of the transportation, child care, and employment-related issues that have a disproportionate effect on people with low incomes.
  • Finally, judges need to support measures to ensure high-quality legal representation is available to everyone. This includes, among other things, supporting the State Public Defenders Office and ensuring that private-bar defense attorneys are reasonably paid. High-quality representation is often critical to how cases are ultimately resolved—the severity of crime to which a defendant pleas and whether a defendant pleas or goes to trial.


4. What can you do as judge to address the opioid epidemic in a constructive way?

The opioid epidemic is one of the most serious public health and safety issues facing the criminal justice system, courts, and public health systems. Drug treatment courts, discussed at length elsewhere in this questionnaire, are a critical component of addressing this issue.

Recently, in states that have been particularly hard hit by this epidemic including Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia efforts have gotten underway to address the issue regionally. Judges in those States have brought together law enforcement, judges, public health officials, and medical experts to discuss opioid addiction and its consequences from the medical, legal, and policy perspectives. We should seek to learn from those efforts to see what we could replicate and apply here, as well as continuing the Wisconsin specific initiatives that are on-going in this area.


5. What relationship should the criminal justice system have with issues of disabilities and mental health?

Far too often, the criminal justice system serves as society’s treatment place of last resort—a backstop that comes into play because people lack the resources to access drug-addiction, mental-health, or other treatment on their own or because there aren’t enough of those treatment options available. A large proportion of defendants suffer from some type of addiction or mental health issue.

Punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation are each goals of the criminal justice system. Given the strong connection between treatment needs and entry into the system, rehabilitation should be a primary focus whenever it is warranted and particularly with defendants convicted of drug and non-violent crimes.

As a judge, I will support and work to expand our county’s diversion programs and treatment courts. Dane County already has drug and OWI treatment courts and some diversion programs. I would advocate for a Mental Health Court. The focus of all these programs is treatment. With some, defendants avoid convictions entirely upon successful completion. Helping defendants get the treatment they need, all while avoiding a criminal record, is particularly critical given the disparities in health care and other access that fuel the disparities in the criminal justice system.


6. How can the criminal justice system be more equitable in its treatment of transgender people?

Transgender persons are victimized at alarming and disproportionately-high rates.

  • The majority of victims of hate violence homicides (72%) in 2013 were transgender women.1
  • Transgender people were 7 times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with the police compared to cisgender survivors and victims. 2
  • According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), 90% Ninety percent of transgender people had Experienced harassment in the workplace3

The Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color report “Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence (http://hrc-assets.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com//files/assets/resources/HRC-AntiTransgenderViolence-0519.pdf) contains a number of policy and advocacy steps communities have taken, and could take, on this issue. Doubtless, there are other case studies and existing programs we can learn from.

One important place to start is ensuring that the courthouse experience is accommodating to transgender people—including, for example, ensuring that restrooms and other courthouse facilities are comfortable and accessible for transgender people; evaluating gender designations on court forms; and using appropriate gender designations in court proceedings, taking transgender people’s lead on their designations of choice.

A second important piece is treating transgender people equally under the eyes of the law—affording them the same impartiality and constitutional protections under the law as all people deserve, without regard to their sexual identity.

Ultimately, the key to equitable treatment for transgender people, as with everyone, is starting from a place of empathy—putting oneself in another’s shoes and seeing things from another perspective. My extensive work in the criminal justice system, particularly in victims’ rights, has made me uniquely attuned to this critical step.


7. How will you work with other players in the criminal justice system, governmental agencies, and community members to address the goals you’ve delineated?

I have dedicated my career to improving the criminal justice system and because of that , I have collaborated extensively with criminal defense attorneys, the public defender’s office, prosecutors, judges, and advocates to solve issues and make changes. Given the criminal justice system’s critical role in helping people obtain treatment for mental health and addiction issues, I would continue, as a judge, to coordinate with other players in the criminal justice system—including the jail and prison system and treatment providers.

That means staying active and involved in the community; staying up to date on what is available in terms of treatment and other options; serving on committees that bring together diverse stakeholders to identify gaps and potential solutions; and, where appropriate advocating for change and new policies with other branches of government.

Though I would collaborate with other players in the criminal justice system, particularly around the area of treatment programs for defendants, my interactions would always be informed by my judicial philosophy and my appreciation of the Judicial branch as a check and balance on overreach by the other two branches of government. I would not engage with another branch of government in a way that would cast doubt on my independence or oversight function.


8. What role does training play for judges in regard to equity and inclusion? How will you advance social justice with your fellow judges?

As a regular presenter/trainer at criminal justice conferences throughout the state, I have seen firsthand the huge impact that effective training can have on promoting social justice. The biggest step with training on social justice issues like the ones discussed above—racial disparity, poverty, and transgender issues—is getting people to stop and think.

We are fortunate to live in a county and state with many well-intentioned judges who do not set out to discriminate or to negatively impact any group of people. But unconscious bias or overlooked issues can lead to ills more pervasive and pernicious than express bad-intent. A key component on social justice issues is not just exposing participants to the facts but on getting them to take that next step—to reflect on themselves and to empathize with others.

That’s the impact I always strive to have in my presentations. I would plan to continue conducting trainings—and having such an impact— as a judge. But my advocacy for social justice issues would extend beyond established trainings. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not one to sit idly and silently by in the face of a social wrong. I will advocate for social justice issues, and against wrongs I see in court or other procedures, with judges. I will also collaborate with other stakeholders in the criminal justice system in an effort to ensure that defendants have the treatment and other services they need to overcome addiction or mental health issues that led them to the criminal justice system in the first place.


9. Do you feel CCAP needs to be reformed and, if so, how?

I do believe CCAP should be improved. CCAP provides an important service—providing transparency into the court system. But it also raises significant issues for defendants and others who end up being unfairly targeted or discriminated against due to what is on their CCAP records. Such discrimination is particularly unfortunate given the limits of what is on CCAP.

There are three areas in which we should look to improve or reform CCAP.

First, CCAP records exist regardless of how a case ended—criminal cases remain on CCAP even if a defendant was acquitted, and civil cases remain even if a case settled or was ultimately deemed meritless. As a result, unproven criminal or civil charges can follow parties forever, regardless of their ultimate merit. We should consider removing cases from CCAP, based on their disposition.

Second, CCAP records remain on CCAP indefinitely. This hinders people’s ability to move on; for, however successful they have been at rehabilitating or just maturing and growing, their virtual image remains forever linked to their past—a past that, as explained above, may be defined by ultimately unfounded allegations.

Third, it is also important to consider the privacy rights of victims, witnesses, and other third parties. There is no reason such people’s names need to be included in CCAP records, but such inclusion can have devastating effects on victims and others (for example, naming the victim in a sexual assault case involving a teacher and student). The inclusion of such names should be clearly prohibited.


10. What tools do judges have in civil courts in reducing evictions and homelessness?

The legal standards for eviction are clearly spelled out in the Wisconsin Code and do not give circuit court judges a significant amount of leeway. As with criminal justice issues, the court proceeding is the culmination a series of events both within and apart from the court system.

There are, however, some steps that judges can take related to evictions. There are even more steps judges can take to address homelessness, many of which fall outside eviction proceedings.

Related to eviction proceedings, there are four things judges can do to reduce evictions, or at least, to address them:

  • First, judges need to ensure that landlords have strictly complied with their legal obligations— including providing adequate notice to tenants. Eviction hearings should not be treated as rubber-stamp proceedings granting landlords evictions.
  • Second, though landlords may have a right to evict, it does not mean they must. While judges cannot ignore any rights to evict provided in the law, Judges can encourage landlords to consider other options.
  • Third, related to the CCAP question above, like unproven criminal convictions, eviction cases remain on CCAP even if they are ultimately settled or unproven. This can hinder tenants’ ability to rent in the future. I would raise this issue when advocating for the CCAP reforms mentioned above.
  • Fourth, unlike in criminal cases, defendants do not have a right to counsel in civil cases— including civil cases involving critical issues like one’s housing and children. However, judges can appoint civil counsel. I will advocate, as part of the budget process, to have more resources available to provide counsel to civil litigants. I will also maintain and publicize a list of resources where unrepresented parties can obtain legal help. While I will maintain impartiality, I will take measures to ensure that all parties, those with lawyer and those without, are heard and truly do receive their day in court.

The larger issue of homelessness goes beyond eviction proceedings and gets into the larger issues about mental illness, addiction issues, and the criminal justice system. Many people who are homeless have mental illness and addiction issues, that are untreated. Judges can help ensure that our criminal justice and court system is to truly helping people who enter it get the treatment and other services they need.

People who are homeless face unique issues involving transportation, their ability to take advantage of services, and their ability to find a place to stay that complies with bail and other possible restrictions. Judges should, as with all litigants, evaluate their unique needs into account, just as I promise to do with all litigants, whatever side and however they ended up before me.


11. What is your overarching philosophy behind custody and child support cases?

As a parent myself, I understand how acutely personal and difficult child custody and placement matters are for everyone involved—both for children and the parents. Tensions can get high in family law cases. I would work to lower them by emphasizing what must be the priority for everyone—the best interest of the children.

Usually, the best child custody and placement issues are those parents reach themselves. The parents understand their children and situation best, what is likely to work and not for their family. Further, I am acutely aware of the tremendous financial and emotional toll of being in court system; costs and acrimony can be significantly reduced when parents come to resolution on their own. With all that in mind, judges can encourage parents to work out agreements on their own, using the court’s mediation services if needed.

Unfortunately, however, some parents simply cannot agree. In such instances, I will start, as I must, with Wisconsin’s family law statute—which sets forth the criteria that judges must consider when deciding children’s physical and legal custody and placement. In applying the law, I will strive to do what is in the best interest of children. I will conduct that inquiry with a clear focus on the children, but also, with a keen awareness of how painful and personal anything involving one’s children is for parents. I will endeavor to make common-sense, practical decisions that make sense, can be followed, and will help bring families peace and order (to the extent they will allow). I also believe that, one of the keys to having court orders accepted—particularly in the face of the disagreement that led to them—is for judges to provide fulsome explanations of why they reached the decisions they did, underscoring that all sides were heard and why a decision is in a child’s best interest.

One other point that goes beyond my judicial philosophy in child custody and placement issues but warrants mention—the availability of civil legal services to people who cannot afford them and the disparate impact of family court proceedings on people with low incomes. There is no right to representation in civil cases—even civil cases involving important issues like their children. This lack of representation hinders people’s ability to advocate for themselves or to effectively raise issues about factors such as domestic violence or other issues that endanger children and themselves. It reduces the efficiency of court proceedings and the possibility of mediation or other fair resolution between the parties. As a judge, I will strive to ensure that parties who do not have counsel are given their same day in court as people with counsel. I will also advocate, in the budget process and elsewhere, for resources to ensure that everyone, not just the rich, have access to counsel in cases involving significant issues like their children.


12. What is your view on the relationship between judges and staff?

Judges preside over cases. But cases are not just before judges, they are in courtrooms and before an entire courtroom team which includes the clerk (who interfaces with parties and the public about scheduling and other issues in the courtroom), the court reporter (who records what happens), the bailiff (who, in criminal cases, helps ensure that everyone is treated and acts with the proper respect to both other parties and the court), and the administrative assistant (who manages the court chambers, including all correspondence and calls). Cases are, in essence, heard before a team of committed professionals.

Judges are ultimately responsible for ensuring that cases proceed smoothly, timely, and efficiently in their courtroom and that everyone who enters their courtroom is treated with the proper respect and receives proper accommodations. Judges cannot do this all on their own. They must provide strong leadership, akin to a good coach. They must rely heavily on their team, which often has as much or more contact with parties and non-parties than they do.

For the team to work, the heavy reliance must come with a strong level of respect and support. This goes above just being pleasant. The most effective judges listen and learn from their courtroom team, adapting courtroom processes and procedures based on their suggestions and needs; recognizing fellow team members as the true colleagues they are. Further, to retain a high-quality team, judges must advocate for good working conditions for their team members. This includes providing team members as much flexibility as allows to balance work with home and other considerations. It includes advocating for good pay and benefits in the budget process and respecting the role of union representation. And it includes recognizing and helping provide team members the resources they need to address the stress and psychological toll that working amidst so much conflict and crisis can have on people.


13. How would you approach the budget process? How do you work in a limited budget?

This question has two components: first, what will I do with a limited budget? Second, what will I do to get a larger budget?

Regarding the first, judges, like all civil servants, must operate within budgetary constraints. I have been dealing with throughout my career, both in the District Attorney’s Office and in the Office of Crime Victim Services. The key is really using evidence-based or other frameworks for evaluating how to get the most out of various investments and to spend resources accordingly. An example of this is rehabilitation courts. Providing defendants treatment while they remain in the community, as opposed to incarcerating them (away from their family, jobs, and community), is less costly both in the near term and in the longer term. Another example is the provision of civil legal services. Providing defendants in significant civil cases with attorneys not only improves outcomes and better enables all parties to have their day in court, it also reduces the time cases can take when parties are not represented.

Regarding the second, my plans for the budget align with my priorities and reasons for being a judge. All who know me, know that I am not one to stand idly and silently by in the face of an injustice. As a judge, I will advocate for better resources for diversion and treatment programs, not just for the court but also for treatment providers. I will advocate for resources to ensure that our facilities are accommodating for all people—including people with disabilities and for transgender people. And I will advocate for increased funding for civil legal services to ensure both equal access to justice and more efficient court proceedings. In short, my budgetary priorities–and the advocacy that follows–will align with my priorities and reasons for wanting to serve as a judge.


14. Who is on your campaign team and what is your strategy to be successful? What interests you about the TAA endorsement?

We are running a positive campaign, focused on my qualifications and background and how those uniquely qualify me to the judgeship for which I am running. We have a strong grassroots component to our campaign as we reach out Countywide, including weekly canvasses and small coffees at which I can talk one-on-one with voters. My campaign manager is Melissa Mulliken. I have a diverse group of volunteer advisors including former Judges, elected officials, victim advocates, community leaders, prosecutors and defense attorneys. We are honored to have received strong support from individuals and groups who know the judiciary and the Dane County Courts best and who know my work, my values, and my commitment to making the criminal justice system more fair and more just.

The judge Dane County elects on April 4 will preside over criminal cases – homicide, sexual assault, domestic violence. This judge will continue to preside over criminal cases until 2019 and probably beyond. There is no policy in Dane County Courts that forces judges to “rotate” and hear other kinds of cases, like civil or juvenile cases. In fact, most do not.

This judge will not hear civil rights or labor cases. That is important because my opponent and I have different backgrounds. Marilyn has spent her legal career doing civil law – employment and workplace cases. That is important work, and she has helped people, but that is not the work of this judgeship. Marilyn has not handled or tried a criminal case as an attorney. As a Municipal Judge, she presides over non-criminal cases like traffic, parking and other ordinance violations in the Village of Shorewood HIlls. That work, again while important, is a far cry from the work of a Circuit Court judge.

I would be honored to receive the TAA endorsement. I respect the work you do and the role of labor unions. I would be honored to have earned the confidence of TAA as someone who you believe will be a fair, impartial, and respected judge who would contribute to efforts to improve access to justice and our criminal justice system. My campaign would benefit from the expertise, the outreach, the energy, and the enthusiasm of TAA members during these final weeks.