Wisconsin voters pass questions amending Wisconsin Constitution for stricter cash bail

Two ballot questions approved by wide margins in the 2023 spring election will amend the Wisconsin Constitution to let judges consider more factors when setting bail and the conditions of release before trial.

Associated Press

April 4, 2023

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Two laminated signs with arrows pointing up read Papeleta de votación contados aqui and Ballots counted here are attached with painter's tape to the side of a ballot tabulator machine.

(Credit: Zac Schultz / PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — It will be harder to get out of jail on bail before trial in Wisconsin under an amendment to the state constitution approved by voters on April 4.

Judges will now be able to consider past convictions for violent crimes when setting bail for someone accused of a violent crime. They also will be allowed to set conditions meant to protect public safety when releasing someone before trial.

The amendment’s passage, which appeared as two separate ballot questions that were approved by wide margins, is the latest victory in a Republican-backed push to enact stricter bail laws across the country. 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 in March 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.

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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