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.
She did not hear anything and so assumed she would not be charged and that the conditions of bond lapsed. Police were called to another disturbance at her home and Taylor admitted she had been drinking. She was charged with misdemeanor bail jumping even though she never was charged with the original disorderly conduct. Her drinking, by itself, was not a criminal offense. She was nonetheless convicted on the bail-jumping charge; the conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeals.
Bail jumping can be a felony or a misdemeanor. Felony bail jumping occurs when a person out on bond on a felony charge violates the conditions of that bond. Misdemeanor bail jumping occurs when a person out on bond on a misdemeanor charge violates the conditions of that bond. Missing a court date, violating a local ordinance, or having a drink could all be bail-jumping offenses if bond conditions prohibit those things.
Misdemeanor bail jumping carries a maximum penalty of nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine; felony bail jumping carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
"Cash bail is not an adequate measure of protecting public safety. It simply exacerbates the socioeconomic divide in the criminal legal system." – State Public Defender's Office
The charges and penalties mean that a person charged with, for example, a felony that carries a two-year maximum sentence could face an additional six years in prison if they violate their bond in any way.
And because penalties for bail jumping can exceed those for the underlying crime, prosecutors can use it to encourage (or coerce, depending on one's point of view) defendants to plead guilty to the underlying crime in exchange for dismissal of the bail-jumping charge. Bail jumping is frequently charged in criminal complaints and frequently dismissed as part of plea agreements.
It's important to remember that most people released on bond do not commit new crimes and that pretrial detention wreaks havoc on families and communities. As the State Public Defender's Office put it in legislative testimony, "Cash bail is not an adequate measure of protecting public safety. It simply exacerbates the socioeconomic divide in the criminal legal system. Those with means can afford to post a cash bail amount, even if it is set high based on the totality of the circumstances. Those who are poor will often be held on cash bail amounts as low as $200 which, as the data above shows, actually increased the risks of future recidivism."
To illustrate who really gets charged with bail jumping, WJI and the Mastantuono Coffee & Thomas law firm will take a county-by-county look at 2021 bail-jumping charges. Which counties are charging bail jumping the most? Who are some of the defendants? What happens to those cases?
And are these really the people who should be kept locked up? And how much are we willing to pay?
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