Wisconsin Voters To Decide On Stricter Cash Bail Amendment

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A state constitutional amendment that would make it harder to get out of jail on bail before trial will be decided Tuesday by Wisconsin voters.

The measure, which appears as two separate ballot questions, would allow judges to consider past convictions for violent crimes when setting bail for someone accused of a violent crime. It would also let judges set conditions to protect public safety when releasing someone before trial. If only one of the questions passes, then only that part of the amendment will go into effect.

The amendment’s Republican sponsors say it will make for safer communities. But criminal justice experts warn that it will result in higher cash bail amounts and disproportionately keep poor defendants behind bars.

Bail is meant to ensure people return to court and isn’t intended to be a punishment, since defendants are presumed innocent until convicted. Criminal justice advocates say that if a judge believes someone is a threat to public safety, they should have the power to hold them without bail instead of setting high bail amounts that could still let out wealthy defendants before trial.

Wisconsin law sets such a high bar for holding someone without bail that the option is almost never used.

Support for stricter bail laws in Wisconsin grew after Darrell Brooks drove his SUV through a Christmas parade in Waukesha in 2021, killing six people and injuring more than 60. Brooks was out on $1,000 bail for another charge. His bail for the parade killings was set at $5 million to prevent his release.

A separate bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last month lays out the details of the amendment, including a list of more than 100 offenses that would be considered violent crimes, such as homicide, sexual assault, arson and human trafficking.

But opponents have raised concerns that some of the crimes listed, such as watching a cockfight or leaving a firearm where a child gains access to it, should not make it harder to get out of jail. Research shows that people who stay in jail before trial are more likely to be unemployed or reoffend after their case ends. It’s not uncommon for people to lose their jobs or homes while sitting in jail on a bail they can’t afford.