By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly approved amending the state constitution Tuesday to make it harder for violent criminal defendants to get out on bail, hoping to capitalize on anger over the killing of six people by a driver who authorities say plowed into a Christmas parade near Milwaukee.
The man charged in that case, Darrell Brooks Jr., had posted $1,000 bail on an earlier case two days before the Nov. 21 parade in downtown Waukesha. He pleaded not guilty on Friday to 77 charges, including six counts of homicide. He remains jailed on a $5 million bail.
The Assembly approved the amendment 70-21. It goes next to the state Senate. The proposal must pass two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum before it can be added to the constitution. The soonest that could be placed before voters is 2023. The governor cannot veto the amendment.
The amendment’s supporters have been working since 2017 to get it passed. They say their effort is not in reaction to the parade deaths. But that has given the amendment momentum it’s not seen before. Assembly Republicans on the chamber floor took turns before the vote speaking about the horrors of the parade incident and how crime has increased in Wisconsin since the pandemic started and liberals began calling to defund police departments.
The number of shootings in Milwaukee has increased from 542 in 2019 to 1,052 last year, according to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission. The number of homicides by firearm more than doubled in the last three years, from 80 in 2019 to 181 in 2021.
Statewide, the number of homicides grew from 185 in 2019 to 304 in 2020, according to the latest data collected from Wisconsin law enforcement agencies by the state Justice Department.
Burglaries, thefts, human trafficking cases and robberies decreased over that span, according to the data. But the number of assaults, vehicle thefts and arsons ticked upward.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called the parade incident a “wake-up call” for lawmakers to do something to ensure violent criminals remain in jail. A constitutional amendment gives voters the chance to have their say, he said.
“The system is falling apart,” Vos said. “We’re passing this (amendment) on to the public, so voters have an option to have their voice heard.”
Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee was the only Democrat to speak against the amendment. He advocated for simply keeping defendants deemed to be safety or flight risks locked up and removing cash bail from the equation completely.
“If you post the money, you’re out, dangerous or not,” Goyke said. “This isn’t an equal or fair or transparent system. Release isn’t about risk. It isn’t about danger. It’s about money.”
The amendment has been narrowed from how it was originally proposed this session to apply only to people convicted of a violent crime as defined by the Legislature.
The amendment would require a court to consider the defendant’s potential risk to public safety when setting bail. Currently, bail is set only as a means to ensure the person appears in court.
Under the change, courts would have to consider the totality of the circumstances, specifically whether the accused has a previous conviction for a violent crime; the probability that the accused will fail to appear in court; the need to protect members of the community from serious harm and whether the defendant might intimidate witnesses.
Criminal defense attorneys and other opponents of the amendment argue that the changes will result in more people presumed to be innocent held behind bars longer because of higher bail amounts while they await trial. The Wisconsin Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that works to ensure defendants are treated fairly, argued the change will create a two-tiered justice system with one for the rich and one for the poor.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, who is up for reelection this year, said after the Assembly vote that he supports keeping defendants deemed safety and flight risks in custody.
“Rich people who commit serious crimes, drug kingpins, and gang leaders shouldn’t be able to pay their way out of jail before trial simply because they have access to money,” Kaul said in a statement.