Republicans Push for Bail Reform: Set Appropriate Bail for Violent Offenders, Keep Communities Safe  
January 21, 2023

Tamira Musgrave


Key Points:

  • Bail reform in WI targets violent offenders who shouldn’t be out on the streets placing residents in danger.
  • The constitutional amendment would only focus on violent offenders, not misdemeanors, i.e., shoplifting. 
  • Let judges know the entire past of an offender, past convictions, the severity of crimes, etc.; this can help determine more appropriate bail amounts.
  • Setting higher bail can improve community safety, prevent witness intimidation, and support victims’ rights. 
  • Bail reform may end up on the April ballot if it passes both chambers. 
  • Governor Tony Evers agreed that bail laws should be considered, “I do believe that bail needs to be addressed.”
  • Bail reform can offer judges more transparency and shed light on the whole picture, helping these judges make the right decisions to protect and serve their communities. 
  • The nonbinding measure passed the Assembly along party lines in a 62-35 vote and will also be included on the April ballot.

A bail reform bill is making its way through the WI State Assembly, and if it passes, it will shut the door for specific individuals being released before trial. 

Delafield Republican and State Representative Cindi Duchow has been trying to tighten Wisconsin’s bail laws for years. “I have been working on this a long time,” Duchow told Empower Wisconsin. She added, “It started mainly when a man on my street was charged with molesting his grandchildren and was out on ($75,000) bail. For several months he was free.”

To make matters worse, a school bus stop was close to the offender’s home. Cindi Duchow was appalled when Waukesha County law enforcement officials said judges could not consider the seriousness of the crime or criminal history in setting the cash amount for bail. 

The Wisconsin constitution states that monetary conditions of release may be imposed at the initial appearance in court “only upon finding that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the conditions are necessary to assure appearance in court.” 

Sen. Van Wanggaard joined Duchow in re-introducing a measure that calls for an amendment to the Wisconsin constitution. The change would allow courts to consider more than whether a defendant will attend court. The Joint Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety held a public hearing on the proposed constitutional amendment on Tuesday.

At the moment, judges may also consider whether or not a defendant’s release would put the community at risk of bodily harm or lead to witness intimidation when setting pre-trial conditions, such as using GPS monitoring. 

The Milwaukee County Court System set a $1,000 bail days before he drove his SUV through the Waukesha Christmas parade, killing six and injuring dozens more. He was convicted of 76 charges tied to the parade attack. In addition, Brooks had been in jail accused of injuring the mother of his child with the same vehicle. He was later accused of intimidating her from his jail cell. This case, in particular, drew attention toward bail reform once again. 

In the proposed amendment, judges could consider the “totality of the circumstances.” That includes the seriousness of the crime, previous convictions of the accused, the probability that the defendant will appear in court, the need to protect the community from serious harm, the need to prevent witness intimidation, and potential affirmative defenses when setting cash bail. 

This amendment was passed with bipartisan support in the last session, and if this bill passes both chambers on the floor, it will be on the state’s ballot in the April elections. 

Supporters of the constitutional amendment are concerned about public safety and making sure dangerous or potentially violent people aren’t out on the streets. It will be up to the Legislature to sharpen the loose language of bail statutes. I.e., expanding the definition of “serious bodily harm” to include rape and child molestation. 

Governor Tony Evers agreed that bail laws should be looked at, “I do believe that bail needs to be addressed, and especially considering the violent nature of somebody’s previous offenses, that makes sense to me.” 

Instead of using money to get individuals to appear in court, it could be used as a form of accountability for the severity of the offense. Kate Olsen, the Lead Organizer with ESTHER, says the cash bail system is a classist system that locks up people if they cannot afford bail. 

However, a great example of why bail reform could help keep dangerous criminals off the streets is Darrell Brooks. He has several convictions for domestic abuse, a criminal history dating back to the ‘90s, and he ran over the mother of his child with an SUV. A violent offense, and someone likely to re-offend based on his criminal background, was set at $1,000 bail. Brooks then killed six people and seriously injured many more innocent people with the same SUV only a few days later. 

Bail Reform in Wisconsin

Duchow stated, “Why wouldn’t we want a judge to look at your past criminal convictions and your danger to society when setting bail?” She said it was common sense. Duchow added, “Why wouldn’t we want the judge to have the full picture of the criminal when making these decisions? I don’t know why giving them all of the information is a bad idea.”

She hopes to hold Milwaukee judges accountable. Duchow stated that she hopes elected officials in Milwaukee will “step up.” She said, “We can’t let someone with 20 past convictions for beating up someone back on the streets.”  

This amendment would only focus on violent crimes, not misdemeanors, and allow judges to view the individual’s criminal history and past convictions. However, many oppose the idea for reasons such as overwhelming the already overcrowded jails or falling directly on low-income, black and brown communities because they are over-incarcerated.

Sen. Lena Taylor brought about high incarceration rates and inequity throughout the hearing. “If everyone does not see the inequity, or maybe even believes that the inequality is just happening, and there’s no reason other than, well, that’s just how it happened because those people are more prone to crime.” Adding, “There are people who actually believe those things but may not articulate them.” This was an effort by Lena Taylor to corner speakers uninterested in discussing racial equity. 

Victims’ rights were yet another pressing issue, emphasized by Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez. What message does it send to a victim when an accused perpetrator is given a low bail?

The entire scope of bail reform is multi-layered and complex. There are plenty of arguments from each side. However, it boils down to making an informed decision when setting the bail amount. This amendment is not intended to target people of color; it would target violent offenders, with the ultimate goal of keeping communities safe. 

Using bail amounts simply to get people to show up to court isn’t enough. It makes more sense if setting bail amounts had more to do with the offender on more personalized grounds. With homicide rates exploding in cities like Milwaukee, it’s time to start doing things differently, trying new methods of controlling crime and improving public safety. 

Someone who shoplifts from stores on multiple occasions isn’t going to have their bail set excessively high. However, if that same person decides to assault someone and steal their vehicle, plus they’ve had multiple domestic violence convictions, they will have a much better chance of receiving a higher bail amount. 

Sen. Chris Larson confronted Cindi Duchow with one question that he thought was crucial to the argument. “How much money guarantees the person is moral?” Of course, it’s not the money that can tell you if a person is moral, but their prior convictions and criminal history certainly can. 

Residents of Wisconsin are the top priority of this constitutional amendment. Residents deserve to feel safe and violent offenders should be treated like violent offenders and ultimately held accountable for their actions and decisions. It’s about making sure instances like the one with Darrell Brooks never happen again

The point is to give judges more transparency and the whole picture so they can make the right decisions to better protect and serve their communities. 

The nonbinding measure passed the Assembly along party lines in a 62-35 vote on Thursday after initially passing the Senate on Tuesday. It will also be included on the April ballot in an attempt to show the Governor that voters do take these issues seriously.

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