Bail reform amendment clears state Senate

MADISON, Wis. — A constitutional amendment that would change how bail is set in Wisconsin cleared one of the final hurdles before going to a referendum Tuesday, clearing the Senate with some bipartisan support.

The amendment would allow judges to consider factors like criminal history when setting the monetary amount for a defendant’s bail. Currently, judges can only consider flight risk when setting the cash amount for bail but can include other restrictions — like no contact orders — to protect the public and witnesses’ safety.

The proposal heads to the Assembly Thursday where it is likely to pass. Constitutional amendments in Wisconsin only need support from both chambers of the Legislature — the governor does not get the opportunity to veto the proposal.

“Every other state follows different rules than Wisconsin, every other state allows judges to consider multiple factors when setting bail,” said Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, during the floor debate. “We’re letting judges look at the whole picture, we’re empowering judges, not to stifle them.”

Democrats had broadly decried the measure as unduly impacting poor Wisconsinites, but Democratic Sens. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, and Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska, both joined Republicans in supporting the bail reform amendment.

“The bail reform bill is just that to make sure that again, we continue to keep Wisconsin safe for our communities,” Pfaff said. “At the same time, we need to make sure that we have due process … I will continue to make sure that we move forward criminal justice reform that protects our communities.”

Debate flairs over April turnout

Tied to the debate Tuesday was also the question of how adding referenda like the bail reform amendment might drive turnout for the spring election that features a key state Supreme Court race. The results of that election will not only determine the balance of the court but also decide issues like abortion or gerrymandering.

Republicans included in their vote Tuesday an advisory referendum on whether Wisconsinites support work requirements for those seeking welfare.

“The only thing they’re doing here is to try to influence the Supreme Court race,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a news conference Tuesday morning.

He and legislative Democrats countered with their own advisory referendum on the issue of abortion, which was ultimately voted down by the Republican-controlled chamber.

“Do I think that they’re going to not accept the Democrats’ position?” Evers said. “They should think about that because I think it’s going to work to their detriment.”

Republicans, however, pushed back on the Democrats’ proposal as political games, rejecting claims that the GOP was the ones playing games.

“They are doing it all the time at the local level with marijuana and other issues,” said Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, when asked whether the Republican votes Tuesday were simply an effort to drive conservative support in April. “If that were the case … why are they [Democrats] then being hypocrites and say we can do it, but you can’t.”