MILWAUKEE — Democrats and republicans both say bail reform is needed in Wisconsin after Darrell Brooks Jr. was released on a $1,000 cash bond just days before the Waukesha Christmas parade.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree there should be an easier process in Wisconsin for judges to deny bail to certain defendants based on the public safety risk. While republicans believe there is still a place the cash bail system, some democrats say it should be abolished.
The issue of bail reform took center stage in Wisconsin after Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm admitted the court system made a mistake with Brooks’ bail last month.
To better understand how lawmakers are trying to address bail reform in Wisconsin, let’s go "360" to hear from different perspectives. DA Chisholm explains current challenges in the courtroom, a republican senator shares his fix to allow judges to deny bail to certain defendants, a democratic legislator explains why he believes the cash bail system should be done away with, but let’s start with a Milwaukee family who’s frustrated about the bail system in Wisconsin.
“We don’t want him out of jail because see, he killed my son. My son been brain dead ever since he was in the hospital,” said Pinky Alexander.
Alexander’s son Aaron was killed earlier this month in a reckless driving crash. Alexander says she was shocked when she learned a Milwaukee County court commission was willing to let the man charged in the crash out of jail for $135.
Records obtained by TMJ4 found that the prosecutor filed a bail objection after learning Aaron died from his injuries. The district attorney’s office called the defendant a significant threat to the community and victims.
"We don’t want him walking. We want him to stay locked up for murder,” Alexander said.
The cash bail system in Wisconsin is designed to ensure defendants return to court. If they make all of their required appearances, the money is given back to them.
“You get somebody that is a frequent flier that has all kinds of criminal activity and felonies that they have caused or deaths they have been involved in and we continue to just slap them on the hand and let them out? This makes absolutely no sense,” said Senator Van Wanggaard.
The Racine republican is authoring legislation that would require judges to consider a defendant’s criminal history and public safety risk assessment when determining the cash bail amount. Sen. Wanggaard says he also wants to make it easier for judges to deny bail to defendants who are considered to be a serious threat to the community.
“So you know how many times that’s been utilized since 1981? Take a guess, none, zero, because it is so hard to get to that point with the clear and convincing, you basically have to put a trial on before the trial,” he said.
Sen. Wanggaard says his proposal would remove the requirement for prosecutors and judges to hold an evidence hearing within 10 days of the suspect being detained in order to hold them without bail ahead of trial. DA Chisholm told a Milwaukee County Board committee earlier this month why he believes this law change is necessary.
“The simple solution is to allow us to argue honestly to the judge, to the court commissioner, why it is that we think somebody should not go back out into the community and then that person would be detained, that case would be expedited, and you would prioritize getting that case resolved,” Chisholm said.
While republicans believe the state’s cash bail system still works for defendants who aren’t believed to be a public safety threat, Chisholm says cash bail disproportionately affects those who can’t afford it.
"The reason I don’t believe in cash bail is because it doesn’t do a good job of assessing risk,” he said on Dec. 2.
Democratic Representative David Bowen of Milwaukee thinks it’s time to get rid of cash bail like other states and counties have already done.
Washington D.C. largely did away with cash bail in the 1990s. In 2017, 94 percent of defendants were released without paying according to The Bail Project. The study found 88 percent of those defendants returned for all of their court dates.
“I think essentially you are definitely seeing different disparities and different aspects of the system when it pertains to how different people are treated and especially based on race so it is very clear that this transformation actually can help eliminate those disparities, help us just make these decisions strictly to a public safety basis,” Rep. Bowen said.
In order to change this portion of the state’s constitution regarding the right to bail, two consecutive legislatures would have to approve the amendment before it would go to the people via a referendum on the ballot. That means the soonest Wisconsin could see bail reform is 2023.