By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Rush to Change State Constitution on Cash Bail Ignores Real Failures
I think it’s safe to say that no one would ever want to see a day again like November 21, 2021. Seared in our collective psyche, we won’t forget the tragedy that was exacted on unsuspecting attendees to the Waukesha Christmas parade. As a truck ripped through the crowd, what would unfold would leave death, injuries and a litany of questions. The biggest one: how could something like this happen?
Ultimately, the issue of cash bail emerged as the reason of choice to explain why the driver, who was awaiting trial on a domestic violence case, was positioned to commit these crimes. Faster than the speed of light, legislation was introduced in 2021 to make changes to the Wisconsin constitution regarding cash bail. When “there is a reasonable basis to believe that it is necessary to assure the appearance of the accused in court” cash bail is used. Yet, the $2 million dollar crowdfunded bail, paid by
Kyle Rittenhouse, wasn’t high enough to stop him from violating the terms of his bond. I’m just saying.
Changes to the state constitution require two consecutive legislative sessions where the proposed measure is passed in both sessions. This week, legislative committees took the necessary steps to advance the constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 2. The emotional attachment, to this proposal, will likely help its passage. It is then that Wisconsin voters will be asked to weigh in via a statewide referendum.
However, there are some obvious facts, reasons, and data that calls into question the need for this constitutional change. In media reports, the Milwaukee County District Attorney acknowledges that their office set the bail inappropriately low in the pending case of the parade defendant. They had the ability to impose a higher bail.
They didn’t. The Court Commissioner had options, too.
We also must admit that a high bail amount doesn’t guarantee that a dangerous person won’t be released from jail, while awaiting trial. Means or generous benefactors, as in the case of Rittenhouse, can easily get you out of jail. Low income defendants are most likely to be harmed by the change to the constitution.
The facts are that the Waukesha Christmas Parade’s defendant’s earlier bail, was not the norm. The data, of 50 similar cases reviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, revealed that bail ranged from $1,000 to $100,000. Median bail was $5,000 in 34 of the cases. Median bail for first-degree recklessly endangering safety cases was $25,000. Nine of the 50 cases ranged in bail from $1000 – $75,000.
But a glaring data point revealed that roughly 60% of defendants, in their comparison, were unable to post bail. The remaining nearly 40% took on average, three weeks to come up with their bail. These are hard truths that should have been given every consideration.
Bail reform discussions have been around for years. However, we have a variety of ways, through existing laws, changes to laws, or non-monetary options to keep violent offenders off the streets. Human errors in judgement or mismanagement do not constitute a constitutional failure or crisis. We can’t bail on reason, data and facts as we work to keep communities safe.