A proposal to create stricter bail laws by amending the Wisconsin Constitution is quickly making its way through legislative committees. Following an hours-long joint public hearing on Tuesday, the proposal passed the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety in a 5-3 vote and the Assembly Committee on Judiciary 6-1.
If adopted, the amendment would eliminate language in the state constitution stating that bail may only be set to assure the appearance of the accused in court. Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Delafield), Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), and other proponents of the amendment say that it would grant judges the ability to consider a person’s past criminal history when setting bail. While Duchow and others have said the amendment would focus on violent crimes, the Republican-controlled Legislature will ultimately decide what qualifies as a violent crime and the factors that pose a risk to the community. Critics of the bill argue that judges already have the power to factor in a person’s criminal history into conditions for release. Once it passes the Legislature, the proposal would go before the people of Wisconsin as a ballot measure in April.
Sens. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), and Kelda Roys (D-Madison) all voted against the Senate version. During a Tuesday public hearing, all three Democratic committee members expressed concerns on the effect the amendment would have on communities.
Over-crowding and squalid conditions are common issues in Wisconsin jails. The Milwaukee County Jail has faced recent controversies over in-custody deaths. Taylor and others during the Tuesday hearing also pointed out that Wisconsin already incarcerates one out of ever 36 of its Black residents. The proposal earned the support of Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) who, during the Tuesday hearing, questioned what message low bails send to crime victims.
On Thursday the Assembly resolution was recommended by the committee, and referred to the committee on rules. The Wisconsin State Legislature website states that its Senate counterpart is available for scheduling.
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