Wisconsin Assembly considers bail change after parade deaths

Posted at 7:26 AM, February 15, 2022 and last updated 8:15 PM, July 13, 2023

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly was scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposal amending the state constitution 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.

This Nov. 16, 2021, photo provided by the Waukesha County Sheriff Office in Waukesha, Wis., shows Darrell Brooks Jr. Brooks, the SUV driver who plowed into a Christmas parade in suburban Milwaukee, on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, killing and injuring multiple people. (Waukesha County Sheriff Office via AP)

Supporters of the constitutional amendment, who have been trying since 2017 to get it passed, say their effort is not in reaction to the parade deaths. But that has given the amendment momentum it’s not seen before.

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 measure must pass the Republican-led Legislature in two consecutive sessions, and be approved in a statewide vote, before the constitution would be amended. The soonest that could be placed before voters is 2023. The governor cannot veto the amendment.

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.