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How bail in Wisconsin could change in the coming years under Republican proposals

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MADISON — While Republicans in the state Legislature lack enough votes to override Gov. Tony Evers’ vetoes, conservatives have also proposed constitutional amendments, which cannot be vetoed.

One of them, which has already passed both the Senate and Assembly, could lead to significant changes to how bail is enforced throughout the state.

The bill would change the state Constitution by requiring courts to consider alleged violent offenders’ charges, criminal record and risk to public safety, as well as “the need to prevent the intimidation of witnesses,” in determining bail amounts. Those things are already often considered, although state law requires those who set bail to only impose bail on a “reasonable basis to believe that the conditions are necessary to assure (a suspect’s) appearance in court.”

The amendment passed the Senate 23-10 Tuesday, with Democratic Sens. Tim Carpenter of Milwaukee and Brad Pfaff of Onalaska joining Republicans in support.

With this passage, the next legislative session must pass the amendment again. That will allow the measure to be voted on by the public in April 2023 and, if passed, the state constitution would be officially amended.

Van Wanggaard

Wanggaard

“Most people don’t realize that under the Wisconsin Constitution a judge can only set cash bail in an amount to ensure a person returns to trial. That’s it,” state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a retired Racine police officer whose district includes much of rural Racine and Kenosha counties, said in a statement. “This proposal gives judges the flexibility to protect the community when setting cash bail. It’s common sense.”

Wanggaard continued, saying that ordering judges to only consider getting suspects to show up in court “has put criminals back into our neighborhoods to commit more crime.”

President Joe Biden offered condolences on Monday to the victims and their families after a Sunday evening incident in suburban Milwaukee where an SUV driver plowed through a Christmas parade, killing at least five people and injuring more than 40. "An entire community is struggling, struggling to cope with a horrific act of violence," Biden said. Biden said his administration was focusing on the incident. The joyous scene of marching bands and children dancing in Santa hats and waving pompoms gave way in an instant to screams and the sight of crumpled bodies as the SUV sped through barricades and struck dancers, musicians and others.

Calls for bail reform have strongly increased, particularly from conservative elected officials, after the Nov. 21 Waukesha parade tragedy. Six people were killed and dozens more were injured when, allegedly, Darrell Brooks, a Milwaukee man who was out of custody on a relatively low $1,000 bail for attempting to hit his ex-girlfriend with a car, used that same car to drive over parade marchers.

Other actions

Julian Bradley

Bradley

Another bill passed Tuesday by the Senate was authored by Julian Bradley, a Franklin Republican whose district includes Waterford.

In a release, Bradley said the bill will increase “transparency” in how bails are set by requiring the Department of Justice “to publish on its website an annual searchable report” for every crime committed in the state. That report would include:

  • What charges were filed and in what county.
  • Name of the prosecutor.
  • Name of the judge.
  • If defendant was released without bail.
  • If defendant was “released upon the execution of an unsecured appearance bond.”
  • If defendant was “released upon the execution of an appearance bond with sufficient solvent sureties.”
  • If defendant was “released upon the deposit of cash in lieu of sureties.”
  • If the defendant was denied release.

The bill did not include funding for the work that would need to be done to compile this, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Council’s memo on the proposal. The Wisconsin Department of Administration estimates the cost would be approximately $160,000 yearly, with “indeterminate” added costs to counties.

“Transparency is desperately needed in our justice system,” Bradley said in a statement. “Our DAs (district attorneys) and judges must know there will be thorough scrutiny of their decisions to set bail that allows dangerous criminals to commit violent and deadly crimes. The crime epidemic in our state is out of control, and this bill would create a helpful tool to let the public take action and hold their elected officials accountable.”

Wisconsin’s crime rate has actually been falling in recent years and has among the lowest crime rates in the country, but violent crime reports are rising.

In 1980, Wisconsin recorded nearly 4,800 crimes for every 100,000 people; that had fallen to 3,209 in 2000; 2,757 in 2010; and a 54-year low of 1,765 in 2019, according to government data compiled by The Disaster Center.

Violent crime has been increasing in the new millennium. Even as the state’s population grew by nearly half-a-million people since 2000, the violent crime rate has grown from 236 violent crimes per 100,000 people to 293.2 in 2019.

Another constitutional amendment that passed with unanimous Republican support and no Democratic support would bar the state from receiving private funds to help administer elections.

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