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WI Ballot Question Sparks Calls to End Cash Bail


Wednesday, January 25, 2023   

In the coming months, Wisconsin residents will hear plenty of arguments before they vote on a constitutional amendment to change state policy on cash bail.

Some say there is a need to protect the public, while others say it is simply time to end the practice. The Republican-led Legislature recently approved putting the question before voters in April.

Under the plan, judges would be required to consider a larger set of factors in deciding whether to grant bail to violent offenders.

Marianne Oleson, executive assistant to the directors for EX-incarcerated People Organizing of Wisconsin, said the conversation should be about eliminating cash bail.

"A bail system that is based on cash is based on what you can afford; where is the community safety in that?" Oleson asked. "Where is the justice in that?"

Her group believes the practice contributes to Wisconsin leading the U.S. in incarcerating Black defendants.

She argued cash bail also disproportionately affects women and their families. Currently in Wisconsin, bail is only tied to court appearances. The amendment's sponsors contended judges should base decisions on more information, including a person's past criminal record, to keep the public safe.

Oleson countered other approaches, such as ending the cash bail system, also keep public safety in mind.

"If an accused came before a judge, accused of a violent crime, there would be no cash bail, that person would stay," Oleson explained. "But a nonviolent offender would be able to be released, continue working, continue being part of their family."

Efforts to eliminate cash bail have surfaced in states like Illinois and California, but the plans have run into obstacles. Sponsors of the Wisconsin amendment have suggested they will introduce language to make it clear only certain types of violent offenses should be applied to a judge's decision-making, if the ballot question is approved.

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