Welcome to our new "Crime of the Month" feature, where we look at the numbers and issues behind court cases in Wisconsin.
Felony bail jumping is the most common type of felony case opened in the state and is the most likely to be dismissed before trial.
It also is enforced with great inconsistency between counties.
Felony bail jumping “is a horrible, horrible statute," said Anthony Cotton, president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "I don't think the threat of a bail jumping prosecution does one bit to ensure a defendant complies with their condition of bail."
But Manitowoc County District Attorney Jacalyn LaBre, president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, said the charge designed to hold defendants accountable. “They could just follow conditions of bond and not face those charges,” she said.
Some 7,034 felony bail jumping cases were opened last year, slightly edging drug possession th (6,984 cases) as the most common felony case type opened, according to state figures.
Some 37 percent of felony bail jumping cases were dismissed before trial, the highest dismissal rate of any case type, according to state figures. Stalking was the second most likely to be dismissed, with a 29% dismissal rate, according to state court figures.
Felony bail jumping occurs when a person out on bond on a felony charge violates the conditions of that bond.
In Ashland County last year, 120 out of 316, or 38 percent, of felony cases opened were bail jumping cases, In Shawano County, where a similar number of felony cases were opened, just 45 of 324, or 13.9 percent, of those cases were bail jumping cases.
In Milwaukee County, which had 5,543 felony cases last year, by far the most in the state, just 4.7 percent, or 262, were felony bail jumping cases.
The statistics reflect cases in which felony bail jumping was the most serious charge.
The charge can elevate a non-crime, such as missing a drug test, or a misdemeanor, such as disorderly conduct, into a felony carrying a penalty of up to six years in prison.
“There are thousands of felony bail jumpings every year,” said State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). ”It’s frequently a system-created crime.”
LaBre said counties may use the law differently, depending on circumstances. Staffing and workload and office priorities may influence decisions about how to use the felony bail jumping charge, she said.
Felony bail jumping can result in some strange situations. Last month, a Court of Appeals panel threw out a man’s felony drug convictions, but let stand felony bail jumping charges issued when the he violated the bond conditions on the drug charges by missing three drug tests. So he faced felony charges for non-criminal bond violations in a felony case that was tossed.
Earlier this month, a different Appeals Court panel upheld the sentence handed down to a man facing stalking charges who violated his bond by entering the building where his target, a social worker, worked. By entering that building, the appeals panel said, the man violated his bond both in the stalking case and in an earlier 2009 case. The man got a harsher sentence -- four years in prison -- on the bail jumping charges than he did on the main stalking conviction - 1 ½ years.
Prosecutors can use a felony bail charge as a hammer to coerce a defendant to accept a plea deal, Cotton said. He told of a client who was charged with trying to strangle his wife and who well might have been innocent of that. But the client was picked up for drunk driving, a non-criminal offense that violated the conditions of his bond. With the six-year bail jumping charge hanging over his head, he ultimately took a deal on the strangulation case, even though he had a good chance of winning if he went to trial.
Goyke last year introduced a bill that would prohibit felony bail jumping charges unless the alleged offender was charged with a new crime while on bond. That bill went nowhere in the Republican-controlled legislature.
The State Public Defender's office, in its 2017-19 budget request, recommended charging all bail jumping cases as misdemeanors. It could have save about $770,000 last fiscal year if the 8,147 felony bail jumping cases it handled were charged as misdemeanors, the agency said in budget documents. Gov. Scott Walker did not include the idea in his 2017-19 budget proposal.
LaBre said most prosecutors did not abuse the bail jumping charge.
“We don’t go looking for it,” she said, especially with existing workloads and staffing shortages.. She declined to say whether she thought the law should be changed.
LaBre said a felony bail jumping charge can be reduced to a misdemeanor if a district attorney believes that is appropriate. Felony bail jumping also qualifies for expungement, which many felonies do not.
A prosecutor can allow a defendant to plead guilty to the felony bail jumping with the underlying crime read in so a judge is aware of it so the defendant can request and work toward expungement, she said.
That, she said, “obviously benefits the defendant.”
“People do get charged with bail jumping for minor violations of their release,” Goyke said. “If you’re really serious about reducing the prison population and reform and taking caseloads off DAs, and public defenders and the courts, you have to attack and reform various ways the system is creating its own problem.“
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
Sign up for the free WJI newsletter.
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin