In December of 2021 Darrell Brooks plowed his SUV into a crowd at a holiday parade in Waukesha. He killed six people and injured dozens more. A habitual criminal, Brooks was free on only $1,000 bail. His actions that day didn’t just end six lives. It also ended any serious discussion of reducing or eliminating bail.
Well, it ended that discussion for anybody in the real political world, but the hard-left lives on its own planet. The Brooks case had one good impact: it freed up a languishing state constitutional amendment that would reform bail in a better direction. Rather than eliminate it, the amendment would allow judges to expand its use to include consideration of the accused person’s criminal record and potential danger to society. Under our current constitution judges can only consider the defendant’s likelihood of showing up for their next court proceeding.
As required to amend Wisconsin’s constitution, this amendment has passed in two successive legislative sessions, each time on overwhelming bipartisan votes. There is no doubt that it will clear its final hurdle in a statewide referendum. I would predict the margin will be two-to-one or better.
But now the hard-left wants to throw a monkey wrench into all that. A coalition of liberal religious groups, which calls itself WISDOM, has filed suit to stop the referendum from going on the April ballot. They’re hanging on a technicality. State law requires that local clerks be advised of a referendum 70 days before an election. That would have been January 25th and WISDOM claims that clerks didn’t get the notice until January 26th.
There’s some back and forth among the lawyers about what the law really says, but it doesn’t matter. No matter how you look at it, this is penny ante stuff. I can’t imagine that a court will look at that 24 hour difference and say that the will of the Legislature should be thwarted because of a narrowly missed deadline. Certainly this Supreme Court won’t do that if it gets that far, which it shouldn’t.
WISDOM is also trying to block another referendum, which in fact is truly bogus. The Republicans put an advisory referendum on the ballot asking if welfare recipients should be required to look for work, never mind that most of them already are required to do that. The GOP’s move here is just a blatant attempt to run up the conservative vote for the crucial Supreme Court race. That’s too cute by half since that race itself should be enough to drive turnout on both sides. Nobody needs a ginned up meaningless referendum.
Of course, the Republicans weren’t blind to the fact that this constitutional amendment on bail should help conservative turnout as well, but again the Court race itself should be enough. And, by the way, I don’t think any of it will matter. I’m betting that the liberal, probably Janet Protasiewicz, will win in April mostly because of what’s not directly on the ballot: abortion. (It’s also notable that all four candidates for the seat, liberals and conservatives, support the constitutional amendment on bail reform.)
Now, rather than fighting a losing battle here, liberal groups could do something more worthwhile. You could make a good argument that the problem with the Brooks case was really an overworked district attorney. She had a pile of cases and she failed to look at the background information in Brooks’ file that might have led her to ask for higher bail. Hiring and retaining more DA’s and public defenders needs to be a priority because without that you could just as easily wind up with the same mistake even if judges had more discretion. “Pay the lawyers more!” is not exactly a rallying cry for either side, but it’s what needs to happen. That’s a cause that’s worth fighting for and it would lead to more real justice, both for defendants and the public.
But instead WISDOM is fighting something that they should know is a losing cause. Even if they’re successful in keeping this off the April ballot, it will just pass at the next opportunity. And, in my view and in the view of the vast majority, it should pass as a matter of good public policy. And WISDOM is also leading the charge to downsize the Dane County jail by 30% in the fastest growing county in the state, another really bad idea.
There are bad people in this world and for the safety of the public they need to be excluded from society. To do otherwise is unwise.