Don’t Fight Bail Reform

The hard-left wants bail reform, but this isn’t what they had in mind.

It has become a cause on the hard-left to call for the elimination of cash bail. The argument is that poor defendants have a hard time posting bail and so stay in jail longer than those with more means. And because more poor defendants are Black or Hispanic those folks tend to be the ones spending more time behind bars. A few states and cities have experimented with eliminating bail or all but doing so with mixed results.

In Wisconsin, and some other states, the proposal is to go the other way. Under our state constitution bail can only be used to help make sure that a person accused of a crime shows up for their next court date. A constitutional amendment would allow judges, when setting bail, to also take into account the defendant’s criminal record and the potential that they might commit more crimes while out on bail.

Photo by Ron Lach on

To the vast majority of the public this makes sense. In fact, my guess is that that’s the way most people think it already works.

Constitutional amendments in Wisconsin need to pass two successive Legislatures and then be approved by the voters in a referendum. This amendment easily cleared both houses of the Legislature last session on bipartisan votes and it will surely do the same in the next week or so. Then it will go on the April 4th ballot where it will be approved by the voters by a margin of, let’s say, three-to-one.

This is going to happen and, in my view, it most definitely should happen. But even if your politics is hard-left, you shouldn’t fight this. Here’s why.

Also on that April ballot is the state Supreme Court race, which will determine the Court balance. If a liberal wins, they’ll have a 4-3 majority. That means, among other things, that it’s highly likely that somewhat more fair legislative district maps will be drawn and that our restrictive 1849 abortion law will be struck down.

But if the hard-left makes a big deal out of this bail issue — which will pass overwhelmingly no matter what they do — they will only be increasing conservative turn out and decreasing chances for the liberal candidate in the Court race. Republicans are already trying to gin up the conservative vote by placing a bogus question on the ballot asking if welfare recipients should have a work requirement.

For me with my left-center views it’s easy. I’m for all four things: a liberal majority on the Court, maps that are more fair, striking down the 1849 abortion law and bail reforms that keep the bad guys locked up longer. My hard-left friends will agree on the first three and the fourth is a lost cause for them anyway.

So, in the interests of the greater good and the bigger picture the hard-left should set aside their principles on the bail amendment.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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