Federal study would track how courts set bail, release violent offenders under GOP bill

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – A pair of Republican lawmakers want to track how judges across the country impose bail and release violent offenders back into the community in wake of the Waukesha parade deaths.

U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Rep. Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI 5th) introduced the Pretrial Release Reporting Act which would require the U.S. Department of Justice to study how courts across the nation set bail amounts and release individuals charged with violent offenses.

The bill comes as state lawmakers have introduced a flurry of bail reform laws after Darrell Brooks is accused of plowing his SUV through the Waukesha Christmas parade, killing six and injuring dozens more. Fitzgerald said the bill is a first step towards reforming the bail system.

“It will lay out what’s wrong with this carousel of individuals who end up in the system, out of the system and back in the courts,” said Fitzgerald. “We want to see nationwide how often this is happening and where it is happening.”

If the bill passes, Sen. Johnson said the measure would increase transparency for members of Congress and the public to see how bail policies are used for cases involving violent offenders.

“The Pretrial Release Reporting Act will bring transparency the American public deserves and make everyone aware of how frequent violent offenders are released into their communities after posting meager bail, or none at all,” Johnson said in a statement.

All members of Wisconsin's Republican congressional delegation signed on in support of the bill.

Anger and frustration over the Waukesha tragedy has sparked debate over how to reform bail laws while also trying to avoid overcrowding the criminal justice system.

In Wisconsin, Republicans and some Democrats have signaled support for harsher bail standards. Some proposals include setting mandatory minimum bail amounts, allowing judges to consider an offender's risk to the public when setting bail, and eliminating cash bail.

On Tuesday, criminal justice advocacy groups met with lawmakers to share their ideas on how to reform the bail system, and their opposition to a constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult for violent defendants to get out on bail.

“I believe this bill can be damaging,” said Jerome Dillard, Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) executive director. “I feel judges should use their discretion but they also need to take into consideration what led up to the cause and effect.”

Another concern among Democrats and advocates is they worry the amendment eliminates the presumption of innocence.

“I feel cash bail is failing because we have two systems – one for the rich and guilty who are treated better than those who are poor and maybe innocent or guilty,” Dillard said.

Criminal justice groups stressed the need for more mental health services for reoffenders instead of keeping them behind bars.

Finding solutions to curb a wave of violent crime has also become a central issue in the race for governor.

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