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Update: Wisconsin Assembly passes bail reform, will be on April ballot

Democrats who voted against the measure fear it will only disproportionately impact the poor and people of color.
Constitutional Amendments Wisconsin
Posted at 3:07 PM, Jan 17, 2023

Update: The Wisconsin State Assembly passed a constitutional amendment 74-23 Thursday to add a question regarding bail reform to the April ballot.

Right now in Wisconsin, judges set bail to see that offenders return to court. Under the amendment, a judge would be required to review an offender's past crimes and convictions before setting bail.

Supporters argue it will help keep violent criminals off the street. But opponents argue it will disproportionately impact the Black community.

As the Associated Press reports, "putting the amendment on the April ballot gives the Republican-controlled Legislature a chance to score an early win in the new legislative session while avoiding a veto from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. The proposal’s popularity with conservatives could also drive supporters to the polls in a pivotal election that will determine ideological control of the state Supreme Court."

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Previous report: The Wisconsin Senate voted 23-9 in support of an amendment allowing judges to consider more factors when setting cash bail.

The Wisconsin Assembly is voting on the measure on Thursday. From there, the proposal heads to the April 4 ballot.

Democrats Brad Pfaff and Bob Wirch joined 21 Republicans in support of the amendment. Sen. Van Wanggard, District 21, is among the senators who reintroduced the measure.

"Claiming this is about something other than our broken bail system is ridiculous. This does not give a blank check to judges and DAs [district attorneys] to set any bail you want," said Wanggard.

Democrats who voted against the measure fear it will only disproportionately impact the poor and people of color. And those with the financial means, they argue, will still be able to bail out, even if judges start setting bail higher under new rules.

“By moving forward with something that is half-baked and not well thought out, we are instead building a foundation on a broken bedrock," said Sen. Chris Larson, District 7.

LEGAL ABORTIONS? Gov. Evers, Dems call for another referendum on legal abortion in Wisconsin

Also on Tuesday, state Democrats tried to replace the Republican advisory referendum about work requirements for welfare recipients - with a referendum on whether the state's abortion ban should be repealed.

The Republican referendum is nonbinding: the results of the April vote do not change the legislation, according to the AP.

What are the details of the bail reform constitutional amendment

As TMJ4's Ben Jordan reported earlier this month, Republican lawmakers are pressing forward with a push to change the state’s constitution to require judges to consider more factors when setting cash bail.

Several Democrats tell TMJ4 News that doubling down on cash bail would only worsen disparities.

"I think everyone realizes we've got a problem and the only way to solve it is we've got to start putting bad guys in jail,” said Rep. Cindi Duchow.

Wisconsin’s cash bail system is designed to ensure a person accused of a crime returns to court. Rep. Duchow, a Delafield Republican, believes that criteria alone opens the door for people charged with violent crimes to commit more while awaiting trial.

"I think it is common sense that the judge should look back at your past criminal convictions, the severity of the crime, and the safety of the community, and everybody I talk to about this assumes that's what happens right now, but that's not what happens,” she said. “Judges are not allowed to look at your past criminal convictions at all."

Rep. Duchow authored an amendment to change the state’s constitution to require judges and court commissioners to consider each of those factors when setting cash bail.

“Ultimately, do you think if this amendment passes a referendum that it would mean higher cash bail amounts for the most violent offenders?” TMJ4’s Ben Jordan asked.

"I think it will in some cases because they're going to be able to look back and see that there's a pattern of bad behavior here and again, I'm talking about violent crimes, not shoplifting,” Rep. Duchow replied.

“Are there any cases over the past couple of years where this could have made a difference?” Jordan asked.

"I look at the Darrell Brooks case, he had been convicted,” Rep. Duchow replied. “He had a rap sheet a mile long."

"We charge cases, make recommendations, but there's no question that it has caused everybody in the state to look really closely at the issue of bail,” said Milwaukee County District Attorney (DA) John Chisholm.

D.A. Chisholm says he also believes bail reform is necessary to put risk front and center in the decision, but he doesn’t think the state should depend on whether someone can post bail to keep the community safe.

“There's lots of people that pose a significant risk to the community but they're able to post almost any amount of cash,” D.A. Chisholm said. "What you should really be able to say is because of the prior record, because of the facts of this particular case, this person poses a risk to the community and they shouldn't be back out in the community until after the case is adjudicated."

Democratic State Senator Chris Larson voted against the Republican-led amendment last year. He believes Wisconsin should move away from the cash bail system altogether and follow the federal model.

"Wisconsin is number one in the country in terms of Black incarceration so I don't think we need to be continuing to move in that direction,” he said.

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