Wisconsin bail reform: Waukesha Christmas parade sparks action

The Waukesha Christmas parade tragedy is already prompting activity in Madison.

A pair of Republican lawmakers – State Rep. Cindi Duchow and State Sen. Van Wanggaard – want to change the state's system for setting bail by amending the state constitution.

Bail reform means different things to different people, but one approach to that reform is already gaining steam just 48 hours after an SUV plowed through the parade.

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Darrell Brooks Jr., 39, was already out on $500 bail for a previous crime when police say he ran over the mother of his child on Nov. 2. This time, the bail was set at $1,000 – an amount Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm now admits was "inappropriately low."

"If you can’t abide by the terms of the bail, what makes you think they’re going to abide by the terms of the next bail you get?" said State Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha).


This still image from a live video of the holiday parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, shows a red vehicle speeding along the route. 

Allen was in the parade – a block away when Brooks allegedly drove right through the crowd, killing six and wounding more than 60.

"We need to have honest conversations about what the purpose of bail is," Allen said.

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Under current Wisconsin law, judges can only set bail at an amount that ensures the defendant will show up for court. However, new legislation announced Tuesday would allow judges to consider an offenders' public safety risk as well.

"If somebody is perceived as potentially violent, as I think this individual would qualify for that judgment, then that bail should be high," Allen said.

Darrell Brooks initial appearance in Waukesha County court

Darrell Brooks initial appearance in Waukesha County court

University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School Professor Ion Meyn said research shows it is not that simple. He said research shows offenders who sit in jail before trial are 30% more likely to commit a new crime when they get out.

"It’s a complicated set of factors," said Meyn. "It’s not a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. But there is a balance."

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison

It is not a new discussion, but one that is already getting fresh attention after a tragedy that is sure to leave a lasting impression.

While the new legislation aims to keep more offenders locked up before trial, especially the most dangerous ones, a number of states are going the other way – limiting the use of money-based bail because of its disparate impact on the poor.

Earlier this year, Illinois became the first state to eliminate the cash bail system altogether.

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