MILWAUKEE — Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require minimum cash bail amounts for repeat offenders.
If this legislation were to become law in Wisconsin, the courts would be required to set a minimum cash bail of $10,000 for defendants who have previously been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor.
While Republicans say their bills would have kept the Waukesha Christmas parade suspect behind bars, Democrats say it would only create more disparities in the system.
Wisconsin’s cash bail system is designed to ensure defendants appear in court. New GOP legislation would make repeat offenders pay a hefty price to be set free ahead of their criminal trials.
Let’s go ‘360’ to hear from people on all sides of the issue: the Franklin Republican behind the bills, a Milwaukee Democratic lawmaker who says the legislation would do more harm than good, and the Milwaukee National Lawyers Guild who disagrees with the argument this proposal would make communities safer. But we start with Ron Laura, a Milwaukee man who says he fears for the safety of his relatives due to the cash bail set for the defendant accused of abusing them.
"Setting a mandatory minimum on the bail for violent offenders, I believe that would be the correct start to try something in a system that's already broken,” Laura said.
Prosecutors charged Isaiah Bernard with a felony last summer on allegations he strangled the mother of Laura’s children. Bernard was released on a $500 cash bond and just a few months later, prosecutors charged him again. This time, Bernard was charged with two counts of felony child abuse for accusations that he beat two of Laura’s family members.
Court records show Bernard virtually appeared at a hearing in early January where he was told he needed to pay $1,000 in bail or turn himself in to authorities. The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office says he failed to do either and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
“We know that what we're doing now with this system is not working, so trying something new is the best thing to do because when you continue to try things over and over, it begins to run into insanity,” Laura said.
Laura himself was convicted and served time for non-violent felonies, but despite his own experience behind bars he believes bail needs to be increased for certain violent offenders.
"If this were to become law and you commit another felony, you would potentially be held on $10,000. Is that something you think is fair?" TMJ4 News asked Laura. “Yeah, I think it's fair,” he responded.
"It’s sad,” said Senator Julian Bradley of Franklin. “Every time I hear about a story like that or what we saw happen in Waukesha, things that could have been prevented if we were using the common sense solutions of just saying let's agree to keep violent criminals off the streets, and these bills are a step in that direction."
Senator Bradley is spearheading the legislation that would rein in low bail amounts for repeat offenders.
“What we're doing is we're setting a minimum threshold,” he said. “If you've been convicted of a violent misdemeanor or a felony, the minimum bail that could be set for you is $10,000. And what that means is that judges will take a look at that history and include that when they're considering flight risk."
Senator Bradley also authored a bill that would require a minimum cash bail of $5,000 for defendants previously convicted of felony bail jumping. The Milwaukee National Lawyers Guild opposes both bills.
“We have to remember bail jumping isn't necessarily committing a new crime. Bail jumping can be missing an appointment with your pre-trial service, case manager, it can be testing positive for marijuana or other drugs or alcohol,” said attorney Michelle Velasquez.
Velasquez says the proposals would essentially let a defendant’s wealth determine their freedom.
"It will keep more people, predominately people of color and poor individuals, in custody in a court system that's already unable to meet the needs of defendants who are sitting in custody awaiting trials and awaiting speedy trials,” she said.
State Representative Sylvia Ortiz-Velez says the bills are non-starters for her and fellow Democrats.
"The bills overall are very deeply concerning,” she said.
Ortiz-Velez says the Republican bills would create more obstacles for the Milwaukee County court system that is already dealing with a jail nearing capacity and a district attorney’s office struggling to get a criminal case backlog under control.
"We really have a bottleneck and we are not given the tools we need to be successful either,” she said.
Senator Bradley says he’s confident this package of bills will pass the Republican-controlled legislature in the coming months. If that happens, it would then go to Governor Evers for a final decision.