Press conference held today highlighting need for voters to call for marijuana legalization
Wisconsin Justice Initiative today urged Milwaukee County voters to tell legislators what they think about marijuana legalization.
Milwaukee County voters will see a legalization referendum question on the November 8 ballot.
The question asks whether voters favor “allowing adults 21 years of age and older to engage in the personal use of marijuana, while also regulating commercial marijuana-related activities, and imposing a tax on the sale of marijuana.”
At the press conference, WJI President Craig Johnson discussed criminal justice-based reasons for legalization, including the need to end sanctions that are enforced disproportionately against people of color. Current felony sanctions for possession cause lifelong harm by serving as a gateway into the criminal justice system, he said.
Johnson was joined by Wisconsin Justice Initiative Action President Joseph Czarnezki. Czarnezki summarized the benefits of taxing revenue from marijuana sales. “Our neighboring states, Michigan and Illinois, have legalized it. Why should we be sending all our tax dollars to those states?” he said.
Czarnezki noted that in a similar referendum in Milwaukee County four years ago, voters overwhelmingly voted “yes” for legalization. The current referendum is necessary because of the “need to keep the pressure on the state Legislature,” he said.
Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy, who sponsored the resolution putting the referendum on the ballot, highlighted how criminalization hampers hiring and employment efforts. “These things are not just locking people up, it’s not just putting people back in jail and giving more work to our Milwaukee County employees, but it’s keeping people from getting jobs in the first place.”
Wisconsin Sen. Melissa Agard talked of the legislative bills she has sponsored for a decade. Those bills have been blocked or stuck in the Legislature, and voters need to tell legislators to get them moving, she said.
Cannabis educator and researcher Brad Rowe discussed how legalization and licensing of marijuana create safer usage and the opportunity for open discussion about marijuana use. For instance, someone using marijuana could call for medical help without the response of police officers as well, he noted. He described how current law impedes research into the medical benefits of cannabis for treatment of chronic pain, nausea, or other conditions.
Andrew Hysell of Forever Wisconsin served as emcee of the press conference.
Similar referendums will be on the ballots in Dane and Eau Claire counties and in the cities of Stevens Point, Kenosha, Racine, Appleton, and Superior.
WJI supports the legalization of marijuana to avoid the disparate and severe impact on minority communities.
Listen to a recording of the press conference by clicking the arrow at the top of this story.
On June 22 Angela Lang, the executive director of BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing for Communities), and Keisha Robinson, BLOC's deputy director, joined WJI to chat about their organization's activities, which include court watching, canvassing neighborhoods, and developing future leaders in the Black community.
BLOC works through coordinated political action to ensure a high quality of life and access to economic opportunity for members of the Black community in Wisconsin and to empower Black leaders with the tools, training, and resources needed to organize and guarantee that their issues, concerns, and values are represented at all levels of government. Over just a few years BLOC has become a forceful nonprofit in the Milwaukee area.
If you missed the Salon, or if you want to watch or listen again, click on the link below for the recording.
This and recordings of several other past salons are also available on WJI's YouTube channel here.
LBy Gretchen Schuldt
Defendants facing bail-jumping charges are among the favorite targets of those pushing for tougher bail standards in the wake of the Waukesha parade tragedy.
"If someone has proven through past behavior that they...cannot abide by the conditions of a bond imposed by the court, it only makes sense that they should be required to have a minimum vested interest in attending court dates and integrating into society," said Ryan Windorff, president of the Wisconsin State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. Windorff was testifying in support of a bill that would establish a $5,000 minimum bail for criminal defendants previously convicted of bail jumping.
Another proposal under consideration would amend the state constitution to allow judges setting bails to take into consideration factors including criminal histories and amorphous physical or non-physical "serious harm" to the public that would be defined by the Legislature and could be changed by legislative whim.
Backers of both those proposals and others cite the case of Darrell Brooks, the man allegedly responsible for killing six and injuring others when he ran a vehicle into a crowd at the Waukesha parade. Brooks was out on bond at the time and faced domestic violence and bail-jumping charges. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has acknowledged that Brooks should not have been released from the Milwaukee County Jail and that his office erred in seeking a bail of just $1,000.
The stakes behind these bail-tightening proposals are huge, and not just for defendants. Any bill that would make it harder for people to win pretrial release will hit counties hard because counties, not the state, pay for the local jails where those awaiting trial are held. There were 45,454 felony cases and 56,870 misdemeanor cases opened in the state last year. The median number of days it took to close out a case was 161 for misdemeanors and 241 for felonies. None of the bills proposing tougher bail rules would provide assistance to counties to pay for the increased cost and there is a lot of room there for lengthy stays and jail overcrowding if onerous bail restrictions are adopted.
As for bail jumping, there were a total of 29,791 misdemeanor and felony cases filed in the state last year. Bail jumping is one of the most common charges filed in the state.
While the tough-on-crime crowd cites Brooks endlessly in their quest to keep the presumed innocent behind bars, not all people accused of bail jumping are Darrell Brooks – far from it. A bail-jumping charge can be (and is) issued for any violation of a condition of a bond, whether or not that violation is a crime itself. A person doesn't even have to be charged with a crime – a mere arrest is enough – to be guilty of bail jumping for violating a bond related to it.
Case in point: Melodie Taylor was arrested by Platteville police for disorderly conduct and released on $150 bond issued with a condition that she not drink alcohol, according to a brief filed in the Court of Appeals. Some time later, she contacted the police about the bond and was told that if she didn't hear anything in a few days, she could assume that she would not be charged with a crime.
Did you miss our February 9 Zoom talk with Mark Thomsen, Vice-Chair of the Wisconsin Elections Commission? Then listen in now to hear his call for us to be modern-day Paul Reveres regarding voting issues.
WJI endorses legislation expanding diversion grants to include mental health programs
A statement by Wisconsin Justice Initiative President Craig Johnson:
The Legislature this spring has the opportunity to do something rare – pass bipartisan legislation that will help address mental health issues that too often result in vulnerable people ending up in prison. The legislation is 2021 Senate Bill 791. It has the potential to increase the use of treatment and “problem-solving” courts throughout the state by expanding the eligibility criteria for Treatment Alternative and Diversion (TAD) grants. Under current law, TAD grants are limited to programs that offer alcohol and other drug abuse services. SB 791 will expand the grants to include deferral and diversion programs that address mental health.
It has long been clear to criminal justice practitioners that mental health issues can result in defendants being caught in the net of the criminal justice system with no way out. As Rep. Evan Goyke, one of the bill’s sponsors, noted in his remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the bill, roughly 40% of men and 80% of women in the prison system have mental health issues. Prisons and jails are the wrong places to treat people suffering from mental health problems. Expanding eligibility for TAD grants will allow counties to set up diversion programs to help people accused of crimes get access to much-needed mental health services and hopefully be able to avoid jail or prison.
Sen. Andre Jacque, Republican lead sponsor of the bill, noted in his remarks that 97% of TAD graduates stay out of prison after completing services through TAD programs. Jacque also called TAD courts a “critical intervention point of the type that we are always pursuing as policymakers.”
In the most recent state budget, an additional $2.5 million was added for the TAD programming. This legislation will allow counties to apply to use some of this additional money for new, innovative mental health treatment courts to address an important community need, help make our state safer, and help those afflicted with mental health issues avoid jail and prison. The need is there – while there are 86 TAD-funded programs around the state in 53 counties and three tribes, there are only six mental health courts in the state, according to the Wisconsin Association of Treatment Court Professionals statement to the Judiciary Committee.
In remarks to the media following the Waukesha Christmas parade tragedy, the mother of the man who has been charged in the incident noted that he suffered from mental health issues as a juvenile but was cut off from further assistance when he turned 18. While we don’t know what role, if any, mental health issues played in that tragedy, addressing mental health, alcohol and drug abuse and other challenges before they result in damaging criminal behavior will make Wisconsin safer.
SB 791 passed the Wisconsin Senate on February 15. It now heads to the Assembly, where it should be put on the calendar immediately. The sooner it gets to Governor Evers’ desk, the sooner these programs can start working in communities across the state.
Last week the Wisconsin Justice Initiative submitted written comments opposing two bills requiring minimum bail for persons with certain prior convictions.
Assembly Bill 838 would set a minimum bail amount of $10,000 for a defendant previously convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor. Assembly Bill 840 would require bail of at least $5,000 for anyone previously convicted of bail jumping.
The State Assembly’s Committee on Judiciary held a hearing on the bills on Jan. 12. The Committee is chaired by Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison).
Writing on behalf of WJI, Board President Craig Johnson noted how the recent tragic and heartbreaking events in Waukesha County have prompted an examination of bail laws. He then asked the committee members to keep certain principles in mind as the debate on bail policies moves forward.
“First and foremost, it’s important to understand that good bail decisions are made by relying on evidence. The problem that led to the tragedy in Waukesha was NOT that the evidence supported the decision to recommend a risky and dangerous person for release. The problem was that the evidence that was available – evidence that flagged the risk for violence and the risk for flight – was ignored,” he wrote.
The process of setting bail in Milwaukee County (and other jurisdictions) is assisted by a risk tool called the Public Safety Assessment (PSA). Each defendant arrested on new charges receives a risk score, and the results are available for prosecutors and defense attorneys who make bail recommendations and for court commissioners and judges who make the ultimate bail decisions. Among the factors that the PSA “scores” are a person’s prior record of convictions, the type of offense they are currently facing, any history of missing court, their history of violence, their age, and their record of prior incarceration.
“Unfortunately, while both bills sound reasonable, they ignore the principle that good bail decisions are not ‘one size fits all,’ but instead are based on individual evidence in specific cases,” Johnson wrote. Individual risk assessments would likely result in cash recommendations for many of the same defendants that would be covered by these bills, but not all, he said.
For example, a person might have a bail jumping conviction for drinking alcohol while out on bail for a misdemeanor case from a dozen years earlier – absolute sobriety is often a condition of release. If they are now charged with another minor offense and are not otherwise a public safety or flight risk, should they be required to post $5,000? The PSA and other risk instruments instead balance the various risk factors in a validated process that is based on examining data from hundreds of thousands of cases across the country.
Johnson noted that the individual in the Waukesha Christmas parade case should have had high bail because of his elevated score on the PSA. The score resulted from a number of factors, including his history of non-appearance and the fact that he was out on bail already when he was arrested on new charges. “In short, the risk tool worked, but it wasn’t followed. This person should have had high cash bail, but that doesn’t mean that another person charged with (and presumed innocent of) a serious offense can’t be safely released if other risk factors are not present,” he wrote.
Reliance on evidence rather than emotion in making decisions in the criminal justice system should be encouraged because it results in rational decisions driven rather than decisions based on prejudice and fear, Johnson wrote.
Well-informed bail decisions are made by experienced prosecutors, defense counsel and judges relying on the evidence in each case, Johnson said. “The key is following the evidence,” he said. That means setting appropriate high cash recommendations when a person’s history warrants it. But it also means releasing someone on recognizance, even in some serious cases, if the evidence shows that the person is not high-risk, Johnson said.
“We must make sure that future bail decisions are the result of an evidence-based, validated risk assessment that provides information to justice system professionals to make smart decisions in each case. The evidence points the way, but it gets the right result only if it’s not ignored,” he wrote.
Johnson asked committee members to also consider the societal costs of unnecessary pretrial detention and creation of a two-tiered justice system – one for the rich and one for the poor. The $5,000 minimum bail in AB 840 would have a very different impact on a poor person working part-time at minimum wage than a rich person with the money easily available, he said.
"The problem that led to the tragedy in Waukesha was NOT that the evidence supported the decision to recommend a risky and dangerous person for release. The problem was that the evidence that was available – evidence that flagged the risk for violence and the risk for flight – was ignored.” --WJI President Craig Johnson
The State Bar of Wisconsin, though taking no position on the bills at this time, submitted its concerns about the movement away from evidence-based determinations. “After evaluating many studies and reviewing possible solutions, our Board of Governors has concluded that continuing to use cash bail alone as the basis for public safety is contrary to the State Bar’s philosophy. Rather, courts should use validated risk-assessment tools or ‘evidence-based decision making’ to determine the appropriate mechanism to both guarantee a return for court proceedings and protect the public from further harm,” wrote Bar President Cheryl Daniels.
The Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office pointed to the fundamental principle that those accused of committing crimes are presumed innocent until proved guilty and that detention prior to trial should be the exception rather than the norm. The Defender's Office also suggested that the provisions will violate the state constitution, which allows cash bail solely to ensure that an individual will appear for future court hearings.
Regarding AB 840, the Defender’s Office raised concerns relating to the frequency of bail jumping convictions, as bail jumping can be charged for violation of any condition of pretrial release. “Given that bail jumping is usually one of the top three charges issued in Wisconsin, AB 840 becomes an almost universal minimum bail amount for anyone who may have been convicted of bail jumping years earlier for violating a condition of release,” said the Defender’s Office.
The Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (WACDL) echoed that AB 838 is unconstitutional, as the state constitution allows monetary conditions of release only to assure appearance in court. The bill is also fiscally irresponsible, wrote Anthony Jurek for WACDL. “[T]here are not currently enough jails to house the sort of populations this bill would occasion,” he said.
The main authors of the bills, Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) and Sen. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin), submitted comments in support. Wichgers suggested that the proposed bail reforms are necessary because Gov. Tony Evers has refused to hold Milwaukee County District attorney John Chisholm accountable following the tragedy in Waukesha. Bradley wrote that the package of bills will begin to fix the problem of judges and district attorneys “giving out lax bail” and will rebuild public trust in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system. Bradley added that the Wisconsin Constitution should also be amended to prevent violent criminals from being released.
On Thursday, Jan. 13, Bradley introduced similar proposals in the Senate, Senate Bills 856 and 858. Both bills were referred to the Senate’s Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.
County Board OKs pilot to provide lawyer for indigent defendants in ordinance cases
By Gretchen Schuldt
The Milwaukee County Board on Monday unanimously approved establishing a program to provide defense counsel to indigent defendants accused of violating county ordinances.
The measure, introduced by Supervisors Joseph Czarnezki and Ryan Clancy, picked up 11 additional sponsors during Monday's meeting. They were Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson, and Supervisors Priscilla E. Coggs-Jones, Eddie Cullen, Russell Antonio Goodwin Sr., Jason Haas, Willie Johnson, Jr., Patti Logsdon, Felesia Martin, Shawn Rolland, Steven Shea, and Sequanna Taylor.
Czarnezki, during the Board discussion, noted that the county put significant resources into writing tickets, prosecuting their recipients, and collecting forfeiture amounts owed. Yet defendants are expected to represent themselves in court without assistance if they cannot afford it, he said. (Full disclosure: Czarnezki is a WJI Board member.)
Approving the pilot is a small thing the county can do to improve justice and equity in the county, he said.
"By providing funding for legal counsel for indigent individuals, County Board members showed they believe in justice for the most vulnerable in our community," he said after the meeting.
The 17-0 vote came during the County Board's deliberations on the 2022 county budget. The budget still must be approved by County Executive David Crowley.
Because county ordinance violations are considered civil and not criminal violations, poor people accused of them are not entitled to government-provided attorneys if they cannot afford to hire their own.
Clancy said ordinance forfeitures were a "tax on the poor" and that he would prefer that fewer citations be written. "It really is an inherently unfair system," he said.
The attorney pilot program is "an elegant solution," he said.
Under the amendment, the corporation counsel's office would seek proposals for a contract attorney to represent the defendants. The $50,000 program would be a pilot, and data would be collected to help determine if it should be continued.
The program would be patterned after one operated by Legal Action of Wisconsin that provides defense lawyers for indigent defendants in Milwaukee Municipal Court, which hears cases involving city ordinances.
State law mandates that people arrested for certain ordinance violations, such as controlled substance offenses or some gambling cases, have their personal and arrest information entered into the state's criminal database, where it is available to potential employers, colleges, landlords, or anyone else with the $7 fee to get it, Czarnezki said. While those who are never actually charged or who are acquitted can request that their information be removed from the database if they submit a request and their fingerprints, most people don't know how to go about doing that.
A lawyer, Czarnezki said, can help clients negotiate the court process. remind them about court dates, help them with payment plans, and help get records removed from the state database.
Attorneys Eileen Hirsch and Diane Rondini headlined the Oct. 13 WJI Virtual Salon to discuss their request to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to restrict juvenile shackling in court.
Five circuit court judges from around the state also signed on to the Supreme Court petition.
Under the proposed new Supreme Court rule, children could not be restrained during a court proceeding unless a judge found one of the following:
Video of the Salon is below. There were some Zoom problems, so there are a few cuts of unintelligible audio.
By Gretchen Schuldt
A State Assembly committee recommended adoption of a bill that would make more people eligible to have their criminal records expunged, but also added four more crimes ineligible for expungement.
Felony stalking offenses, misdemeanor property damage to a business, misdemeanor criminal trespass to a dwelling, and violation of a domestic abuse injunction or restraining order would be ineligible for expungement under an amendment adopted by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on an 8-6 vote. The bill then was forwarded to the full Assembly on a unanimous vote.
The Senate's Judiciary and Public Safety Committee recommended Senate adoption of the bill, without the additional four ineligible crimes, on a 5-2 vote.
The full Assembly is expected to consider its version June 16.
Wisconsin's expungement law is stricter than other states' laws. Currently, a person who wants to have a criminal conviction expunged from their Wisconsin record must ask the judge at the time of sentencing, before the judge has any idea how that person does in prison or on supervision. The law also limits the availability of expungement to those less than 25 years old at the time of the crime and to those who do not have a felony conviction record. The offense for which expungement is requested must not be a violent felony and must not carry a penalty greater than six years in prison.
Both the Assembly and Senate versions of the bill would change the law in several ways. It would remove the discriminatory age limit of 25 and would allow people convicted of crimes to request expungement when they complete their sentences.
Other limits, including a prohibition on expunging records related to violent crimes and crimes carrying penalties of more than six years in prison, would remain in place.
Under the bill, once an expunction petition is filed, a judge would review it and either grant or deny it. If denied, a new petition could not be filed for two years.
The bill also would limit a person to one expunction.
The legislation also makes clear what it means to successfully complete a sentence. That would include completing community service, paying all fines, fees, restitution, and completing any community supervision without revocation.
WJI with Alec Karakatsanis
Watch or listen to this fascinating discussion with Alec Karakatsanis, who joined WJI April 29, 2021 for a discussion about "Prosecutors, Judges, and Public Defenders: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Mass Human Caging Bureaucracy."
Karakatsanis is the founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization challenging systemic injustice in the U.S. legal system through advocacy and litigation.
Karakatsanis, author of "Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System," doesn’t think people who have gone to law school, passed the bar, and sworn to uphold the Constitution should be complicit in the mass caging of human beings – an everyday brutality inflicted disproportionately on poor people and people of color and for which the legal system has never offered sufficient justification.
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