State Assembly approves tougher bail laws in wake of Waukesha parade tragedy

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Lawmakers in the Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult for violent defendants to get out on bail.

The proposal passed with bipartisan support in the Assembly (70--21) which would amend the state constitution to allow judges to consider how dangerous a defendant might be to the public when determining bail.

Republican lawmakers reintroduced the measure over public outrage after the Waukesha suspect, Darrell Brooks, was accused of driving his SUV through the Christmas parade, killing six and injuring dozens while out on $1,000 bail.

"Let's give our judges the tools so they can keep violent people off the streets," said Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Town of Delafield), who authored the proposal. "Because I'll tell you, the people in my district are screaming for this."

The amendment would allow courts to consider the entire circumstance surrounding the defendant, including whether they were previously charged with a violent crime, pose a threat to the community, their chances of intimidating witnesses, or the probability of not appearing in court.

Right now, the state's constitution doesn't allow judges to consider these circumstances since bail is only set to ensure someone appears in court.

During debate on the proposal, Republicans said people are growing frustrated with what they call a pattern of people committing crimes while out on bail. Many referenced Brooks, the 39-year-old who had a history of violence after police say he used his car to run over a woman he has a child with weeks before the Waukesha parade tragedy.

"What we saw in Waukesha was a tragedy," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. "The catch and release of violent offenders in our communities must end."

Over a dozen Democrats voted in favor of the amendment, but some expressed concerns higher bail amounts could lead to keeping innocent people behind bars longer while they wait for trial because they can't afford it.

"I'm in favor of changing our system," said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). "[But] I think this takes the wrong type of change to fix our pretrial release system."

Goyke argues the proposal would create an unfair justice system because higher bail amounts can be paid by the rich and not the poor.

"Under a cash bail system, if the individual posts that dollar amount, they can get out whether they are dangerous or not if they have the money to buy their way out of jail," he said.

The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office recommended $1,000 bail for Brooks, which DA John Chisholm called "inappropriately low." Republicans have called for Chisholm to resign over the low bail amount.

A group of citizens also filed a petition requesting Governor Tony Evers remove Chisholm from office, but Evers' attorney determined there wasn't enough evidence to kick him out of office.

Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul have voiced support for tougher bail laws, but Kaul said it doesn't go far enough to reform the criminal justice system.

“The constitutional amendment the Assembly passed today, while a small step in the right direction, doesn’t do nearly enough to strengthen Wisconsin’s pretrial system and protect public safety," Kaul said in a statement. “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."

Evers is unable to veto the constitutional amendment which needs to pass two consecutive sessions and needs approval from voters through a ballot referendum.

The amendment now heads to the Senate for consideration.

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