Senate passes bail reform amendment measure

Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 18, 2023

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — A measure calling for a state constitutional amendment on bail reform is one step closer to going to Wisconsin voters.

The Senate in session Tuesday passed the measure 23-9, sending it to the Assembly for a vote on Thursday. If the resolution passes, it will head to voters to decide in an April election that includes a Wisconsin Supreme Court race that could determine whether the court’s majority is controlled by conservatives or liberals.

The reform measure would allow judges to consider other factors than whether a defendant will show up to his court date in deciding cash bail. 

Under the amendment, judges would be able to consider the “totality of the circumstances” — including the seriousness of the crime, previous convictions of the accused and the need to protect the community from serious harm.

Our current system for bail is failing to protect law-abiding citizens,” said Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville). “It is critical judges are unrestricted in their ability to review the totality of the circumstances when determining bail instead of releasing dangerous criminals back on the street to commit additional crimes.”

It takes passage in two consecutive legislative sessions to send a constitutional amendment question on to voters. The ballot question circumvents the involvement of Democrat Gov. Tony Evers, who has vetoed several Republican crime bills over his first term.

Bail reform took on greater urgency in November 2021, after The Milwaukee County Court system set free Darrell Brooks Jr.  on just $1,000 bail. Brooks was released just days before he drove his SUV into the Waukesha Christmas parade, killing six people and injuring dozens more. He had been in jail accused of injuring the mother of his child with the same vehicle. He later was accused of intimidating her from his jail cell.

Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) said the constitutional amendment proposal he co-authored is not about Brooks or the Milwaukee County Court system. He first proposed bail reform in 2017.

“This proposal is about one thing – fixing Wisconsin’s broken bail system. Anyone taking an honest look at Wisconsin’s bail system knows that Wisconsin’s system is broken and needs to be fixed,” Wanggaard said in a statement.

He said crime statistics in Wisconsin have soared since 1981, when the state created a new system of bail and pre-trial release and decided to put it in the constitution.

“If you look at the crime statistics, it’s weird, but when we decided to start this new system, crime rates which had been steady, started to dramatically increase. I’m not saying the bail change 42 years ago caused crime to increase. But there is a correlation,” the senator said.

The former law enforcement official said the constitutional amendment is the first step to fix Wisconsin’s broken bail system.

“You can’t fix the system under the current constitution. This amendment opens the door,” Wanggaard said.

The Senate also approved an advisory referendum asking voters whether able-bodied welfare adults without children should have to look for a job in order to collect taxpayer-funded welfare benefits. If the Assembly approves, that question will go on the April ballot, too. The measure passed 22-10 with one Democrat — Sen. Brad Pfaff — voting with Republicans.

“They’re trying to gin up their voters,” said  Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison), asserting Republicans are quickly moving through referendum questions to turn out conservative voters to April’s critical Supreme Court election.

On the topic of turning out voters, Democrats in a last-minute effort introduced an advisory question on the state’s abortion ban — an alternative to the welfare question. The Dems’ replacement proposal went down on a party-line vote.

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