By Gretchen Schuldt
The definition of "serious harm" in a bill designed to impose cash bail on more people is so broad it encompasses "nearly all possible situations," a representative of the State Public Defender's Office told an Assembly committee recently.
"Serious harm" as defined in Assembly Bill 54 includes "personal physical pain or injury, illness, any impairment of physical condition, or death, including mental anguish or emotional harm."
The definition includes terms not found elsewhere in state law, said Adam Plotkin, SPD's legislative liaison.
"Personal pain" or "injury" "could be broadly and differently interpreted to mean that even minor pain could be considered grounds to set cash bail," he said.
Plotkin testified at a public hearing on the bill held before the Assembly's Judiciary Committee. The committee last week recommended recommended, 6-1, adoption of the bill.
The measure is a companion to a proposed amendment to the state constitution that voters will consider in the spring election. That proposed amendment, marketed as a "reform," would allow judges more discretion in determining who must post cash bail to be released from pre-trial custody.
The proposed amendment would require judges to consider four new factors when determining whether cash bail should be imposed. They are the seriousness of the alleged offense, whether there is a past conviction for a violent crime, the need to protect members of the public from serious harm, and the need to prevent the intimidation of witnesses.
The bill would define as "violent crimes" offenses such as criminal damage to property, criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, or violation of an injunction, Plotkin said.
"These...seem to go well beyond the stated intent of the amendment of focusing on violent crimes," he said.
The definitions "undermine the presumption of innocence and present issues related to excessive bail under the 8th amendment," he said. " ‘Excessive’ isn’t just a high cash bail amount, it’s a sum total of the impact. A low-level charge combined with even a low level of cash bail amount that is prohibitive of release can be excessive."
Plotkin also warned of the impacts to the court system if the bill is adopted.
"This will increase the pretrial jail population and the number of people who have non-monetary conditions imposed," he said. "It will increase the number of speedy trial demands. Both of these changes will place a significant burden on an already overtaxed criminal justice system."
The Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association testified in favor of the bill.
"As members of law enforcement, we have witnessed violent offenders who were released from custody before the reports of their crimes were even completed. We have also heard from victims of crimes, who ask us in fear of how they can remain safe when their attackers are already back out on the streets," the organization said in prepared testimony.
Registering in favor of the bill were Americans for Prosperity, the Milwaukee Police Association, the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association Inc., and the Wisconsin State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police.
Registering against the bill was the ACLU of Wisconsin.
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