They claim to reform the bail system, but a legislator who’s worked on real bipartisan solutions says Republicans are abusing their power in order to appear “tough on crime” ahead of the April 4 election.
Two proposed constitutional amendments that would change the bail system in Wisconsin should be rejected by voters next week, according to a legislator who has worked on a bipartisan alternative.
Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said bail for criminal defendants should be determined based on their risk of posing harm to others or fleeing, not whether they’re rich or poor.
Speaking Tuesday on UpNorthNews Radio, Goyke said he was part of a bipartisan study committee in 2018 that looked into bail reform and made broad recommendations that were largely unheeded by Republicans running the Legislature. Instead, GOP lawmakers wrote two constitutional amendments earlier this year that would expand cash bail, ignoring the advice of criminal justice experts..
“It became politicized,” Goyke said of bail reform. “It became a weapon of partisan politics [when] the very purpose of that study committee was to take partisan politics out of complex issues. That’s why we put Republicans and Democrats and non-elected laypersons on the committee, so that we can find consensus that is protected from the political and partisan campaign process.”
Amid nationwide pandemic-era surges in crime, Republicans turned the issue of bail reform into a political cudgel—most successfully in 2022, by misrepresenting the position of US Senate candidate Mandela Barnes. Ads targeting Barnes claimed that his support for ending cash bail would make it easier for violent criminals to be released. In reality, actual bail reform would give courts more latitude to detain defendants who pose a safety risk or a flight risk.
“We wanted to move away from using only money as the determination of whether you get out of jail or not and create a system that would make that decision based on the risk that the individual poses of either flight or re-offending,” Goyke said. “I just think it would be a much more honest and transparent system if we just said, ‘look, you pose a danger based on these factors, so you can’t get out whether you’re rich or not.’”
Goyke noted that other states, like New Jersey, eliminated cash bail and saw crime rates and pre-trial jail populations decrease.
Goyke said true bail reform in Wisconsin is being blocked by a process that politicizes constitutional amendments.
“I think changing our constitution should be done rarely,” Goyke said. “It’s a big change. And once you make these changes they are hard, if not impossible, to undo. So take the time to study the issues before you cast your vote.