Bill Would Clarify Bail Amendment Set For Wisconsin Ballot

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — As promised, Wisconsin Republicans have circulated legislation that specifies which crimes would be included in a proposed constitutional amendment to make it harder for violent criminal defendants to go free on bail.

The Republican-controlled Legislature fast-tracked approval of the proposed amendment in January so it could get on the April ballot. The measure would allow judges to consider previous violent criminal convictions when setting cash bail for a defendant accused of a violent crime. Opponents have raised concerns about how it could be interpreted since state law offers three definitions of violent crimes.

Currently, bail is set only as a means to ensure a person returns to court.

The new bill, circulated for lawmakers to co-sponsor on Friday, came from the amendment's sponsors, Sen. Van Wanggaard and Rep. Cindi Duchow. It designates a long list of offenses - including homicide, sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, arson and child abuse - as violent crimes.

The bill would remove at least one crime, failure to stop child abuse, from existing definitions of violent crimes and add others such as assault by a prisoner and incest with a child, according to Scott Kelly, Wanggaard's chief of staff.

Duchow promised in a news conference ahead of the amendment’s approval by the Legislature that she and Wanggaard would introduce a definition of violent crimes before the April election.

She also said at a committee hearing on Jan. 10 that she didn’t want the amendment to target misdemeanors. However, the bill would classify certain misdemeanor restraining order violations as violent crimes. That could open the door for judges to set higher bail amounts for those offenders.

Duchow told The Associated Press on Friday that she misspoke at the hearing and wasn’t changing her mind by including misdemeanors in the bill. “I’ve always tried to make clear that the line is not between felonies and misdemeanors, but between violent and nonviolent crimes,” she said.

If passed by the Legislature, the bill would take effect only if voters approve the constitutional amendment in April.

Putting the amendment on the April ballot gave Republicans a chance to score an early win in the new legislative session while avoiding a veto from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. The proposal’s popularity with conservatives could also drive supporters to the polls in a pivotal election that will determine ideological control of the state Supreme Court.

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Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.