Voters will now have their say on whether the bail system in Wisconsin should change.
The State Assembly on Thursday approved the proposed constitutional amendment that would allow judges to consider a suspect’s criminal history and level of danger when setting bail.
Republicans looked back to the Waukesha Christmas Parade attack that killed six and injured 60 others. It was that attack that gave some urgency to the plan, but Waukesha state Rep. Scott Allen said the massacre at the parade is, sadly, not the only time when a suspect was out on low or no bail and killed someone.
“Perhaps we could think of it as a one-off problem, but the reality is that the Brooks case is not an isolated incident,” Allen said during Thursday’s debate. “There are too many crimes occurring by individuals awaiting trial, with a lengthy record already attached to their name.”
The Wisconsin Constitution currently only allows judges to consider whether a suspect will return to court when setting bail. The proposed amendment would expand the options for judges, and allow them more latitude when deciding who to keep behind bars.
Democrats at the State Capitol argued the proposed amendment criminalizes poverty.
“When you use monetary funds as a way to determine if dangerous people should be held in custody or not, you are opening the door to creating a two-tied system,” Rep. Dora Drake, D-Milwaukee, said. “One that is focused on those who are poor, and one that is focused on those who have financial resources.
Allen said the changes won’t guarantee any more people will be held on any higher bails.
He said the amendment simply allows judges to keep some dangerous people behind bars for some dangerous crimes.
“We need to take away the shield from these soft-on-crime judges who are harming our communities,” Allen added. “And we need to give a better tool to judges who actually care about public safety.”
Rep Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, said, ultimately, the people of Wisconsin who now decide if they want to see the bail system changed in the state.
“We’re allowing it to go to a vote amongst the people, to see if it’s something that they agree with,” Neylon explained. “This is a very positive step. And I don’t want to lose sight of that when we start to poke holes in the original system.”
The Wisconsin Senate approved the same amendment earlier this week. Voters will have their say on the question in April.
Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge and state supreme court candidate Jennifer Dorow released this statement in response:
“I have long argued for the need to fix Wisconsin’s broken bail system,” said Judge Dorow. “Five years ago, I served on a Legislative Council Study Committee that looked at bail, and I am gratified we will finally have a chance to make some needed changes to our Wisconsin Constitution. The law needs to make clear that dangerous people accused of serious crimes need to be locked up—period. Public safety must be paramount in all bail decisions. In particular, judges should be required to consider the dangerousness of the defendant, the severity of a crime, and the criminal history of the defendant, along with having a viable option to hold dangerous defendants without bail.
“The proposed constitutional amendment aligns with my long-held views and is a step in the right direction. This change is long overdue.
“Unfortunately, for many suffering families, this change will have come too late. Passage of the proposed amendment helps ensure that others might be spared their pain and grief.”