Republicans on Thursday advanced legislation to define what offenses constitute “violent crimes” in preparation for the anticipated passage of a state constitutional amendment that would allow judges to consider defendants’ past convictions in setting cash bail.
If passed and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the measure would clarify that judges can consider dozens of defendants’ past “violent crime” convictions, from reckless homicide to intimidating a witness by use of force, when they set cash bail.
Democrats in the Senate judiciary committee Thursday criticized the bill as too expansive, pointing out that just spectating at a cockfight, dog fight or bullfight would also be considered a violent crime under the proposal.
The measure passed 5-3, along party lines.
If enacted, the measure would only become active if voters approve ballot questions in the April 4 election to allow judges to consider more elements in setting cash bail.
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Currently, judges may only use cash bail to ensure defendants appear in court, not to keep defendants from engaging in criminal activity by keeping them locked up. Judges may, however, add conditions to a person’s bail that seek to address public safety concerns.
The state Constitution also says defendants shall be eligible for release under reasonable conditions aimed at protecting community members from “serious bodily harm.” The proposal would change that standard to “serious harm.”
Because state law is inconsistent about what constitutes a violent crime, the amendment authors in January said they were working on a measure to clarify the definition. Unlike the amendment, which would be enacted if voters approve it in April, the bill to define violent crime would need Evers’ approval.
Evers’ spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Supporters of the proposed constitutional amendment maintain the change would fix Wisconsin’s bail system, which they say lags behind other states’ cash bail standards. Opponents have said the amendment would lead to some defendants being stuck in jail for longer periods of time without being able to pay bail, something they say could raise constitutional issues.
The measure to put the constitutional amendment on the April 4 ballot, alongside the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, was passed by the Legislature with bipartisan support, though most Democrats opposed the change.
Each of the original four Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates said they support the change.
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