MADISON, Wis. (CN) — The Wisconsin Legislature on Thursday got closer to amending the state’s constitution to allow judges to consider a defendant’s danger to the community and other circumstances when deciding bail conditions, not just a cash amount to assure the accused’s appearance in court.
The measure, proposed and championed by members of the Legislature’s Republican majority, will now be put to voters as a ballot question this April in a high-stakes election that includes a race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
It’s been speculated by Democratic legislators and state pundits and politicos that the constitutional amendment – which, if ratified, would circumvent a potential veto by Democratic Governor Tony Evers – is a tactic to juice GOP voter turnout for the critical high court contest, which will either cement or flip the court’s 4-3 ideological balance currently favoring conservatives.
Ten Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in the Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday in passing the constitutional amendment 74-23; it passed the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday, giving the measure the two passes in consecutive legislative sessions needed under state law before it goes to voters and potentially alters the state’s foundational document.
The measure in part allows judges to consider the totality of the circumstances surrounding the case of a defendant accused of a violent crime, as well as “the need to protect the community from serious harm” and “prevent the intimidation of witnesses.”
Some lawmakers evoked the worst case scenario of what can happen when someone free on bail commits an atrocity by recalling the case of Darrell Brooks, who in 2021 killed six and injured dozens after driving through a Waukesha Christmas parade while free on $1,000 bail in a Milwaukee County felony case.
Representative Scott Allen, a Waukesha Republican, immediately brought up Brooks and the parade tragedy in his comments on the Assembly floor before saying “we need to take away the shield from these soft-on-crime judges who are harming our communities” and give better tools to “judges who actually care.”
Ryan Clancy, a freshman socialist lawmaker from Milwaukee on the Democratic ticket, pointed to how damaging pretrial detention can be for defendants and their families and communities. He discouraged legislating from “base instincts” like revenge – something he felt right after the Waukesha parade because his child, who was uninjured, was there – and blasted the amendment as further entrenching a “terrible” cash bail system that exasperates inequalities in criminal justice.
Evan Goyke, another Milwaukee Democrat, highlighted examples of what he called the fatal flaw of cash bail: if release from custody is determined by a dollar amount, there will always be wrongdoers with access to the resources they need to buy their way out of jail and, potentially, commit more crimes.
Cindi Duchow, a Republican from Delafield and one of the resolution’s sponsors since 2017, called the amendment a “common sense procedure” that simply gives judges all the information they need to make bail decisions without handcuffing them.
“Today is a bad day for career criminals in Wisconsin,” said Representative William Penterman, a Republican from Columbus.
One Democrat, Tip McGuire of Kenosha, pointed out that the measure could be problematic because it fails to define vague terms like “serious harm” and suggested these details should be further ironed out in committee, though he ultimately supported its passage after a vote to refer it to the Assembly Committee on Judiciary failed.
Also on Thursday, the Assembly passed an advisory referendum asking voters whether “able-bodied, childless adults” should be required to be seeking work in order to receive state welfare benefits.
Democrats like Kristina Shelton of Green Bay opposed the referendum as a politically motivated stunt which advises voters on something that is already state law for benefits like unemployment insurance and food stamps. Some of these requirements have been waived by state and federal authorities due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Republicans countered that taxpayer-funded benefits need to come with stiffer conditions or be curtailed to address the workforce crisis they’ve been hearing about from employer-constituents. Evers knows the look-for-work requirement is the law but has not been enforcing it, some Republicans said, and this ballot question will show the governor that voters take the issue seriously.
The nonbinding measure passed the Assembly along party lines in a 62-35 vote on Thursday after passing the Senate on Tuesday. It will also be included on the April ballot.
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