Wisconsin Republicans set to clarify cash bail amendment
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature is set Wednesday to clarify when a proposed constitutional amendment to make it harder for people to go free on bail before trial would apply.
Both chambers of the Legislature are expected to pass a bill specifying which offenses would fall under the proposed amendment that, if approved by a majority of the state’s April voters, would allow judges to consider the criminal histories of people accused of violent crimes when setting bail.
State law offers three definitions of violent crime. The GOP-backed bill up for a vote Wednesday would set a new definition for use with the bail amendment, designating more than 100 offenses such as homicide, sexual assault, arson, stalking or human trafficking as violent crimes.
Opponents have said the list is too broad and includes offenses that should not make it more difficult for people to get out on bail, such as watching a cockfight, violating a court order against contacting members of a criminal gang or leaving a firearm where a child gains access to it.
If passed by the Legislature, the bill would still need the approval of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. After that, the measure would go into effect only if voters ratify the amendment in the April 4 election. Evers cannot veto a constitutional amendment.
Currently, bail is set only as a means to ensure someone returns to court. Republicans Rep. Cindi Duchow and Sen. Van Wanggaard, who sponsored both the proposed amendment and the bill to define violent crimes, argue that judges should have greater freedom to set high bail amounts if they believe a defendant poses a threat to public safety.
Republican state lawmakers across the country have pushed for stricter cash bail laws since the year began, following through on a midterm cycle in which the GOP painted itself as tough on crime.
Criminal justice advocates say using cash bail benefits wealthy defendants and does not protect public safety. Wisconsin Democrats introduced an alternative to the bail amendment last week that would virtually eliminate the use of cash bail and make risk the sole factor when deciding who to release before trial. Their proposal is unlikely to make any progress in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
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. Follow Harm on Twitter.