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Friday, April 19, 2024

Gov. Tony Evers vetoed four Republican-sponsored bills that called for increased spending on the state carceral system and harsher criminal punishments.

Explaining Wisconsin’s upcoming referendums on cash bail reform, welfare work requirements

Three statewide referendum questions on the April 4 ballot are generating confusion among Wisconsin voters. Here’s what they mean — and why you should care.

Although Wisconsin’s high-stakes state Supreme Court election has received the lion’s share of attention ahead of the April 4 election, voters will also answer three referendum questions on their spring election ballots that propose expansions to the state’s cash bail system and gauge public opinion on welfare programs. 

The first two questions ask voters about a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would expand judges’ discretion when imposing cash bail on accused criminals. 

Republican lawmakers voted to place the two cash bail measures on the ballot last month, citing the 2021 Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. During the parade, a man previously released on $1,000 bail for domestic violence charges drove his SUV into the crowd, killing six and injuring dozens more. He was sentenced to life in prison late last year.

The goal of the proposed amendment is to provide judges with added criteria for imposing and setting bail to protect public safety, according to the joint resolution passed last month. 

The third question asks Wisconsinites to weigh in on continued debate regarding welfare requirements in the state. The referendum is non-binding, meaning the state is measuring public opinion about certain issues without changing state policy. 

Amid reports of confusing and vague wording from early voters, The Daily Cardinal assembled a rundown of the three ballot questions and what a “yes” or “no” vote on each would mean for Wisconsin. 

Question #1: Conditions of release before conviction. “Shall section 8 (2) of article I of the constitution be amended to allow a court to impose on an accused person being released before conviction conditions that are designed to protect the community from serious harm?” 

Judges can already decide whether to release someone before trial under current state law, though the scope is narrow. A “yes” vote on this amendment would give judges explicit ability to keep those who haven’t been convicted of a crime behind bars based on their potential threat to public safety. A “no” vote would maintain judges’ narrow authority.

A separate Republican bill moving through the state Legislature would redefine “harm” in state law to include the potential of causing psychological harm to others as a merit to keep an accused person in jail. “Serious harm” could then be extended to crimes ranging in severity from homicide to mere violations of a protection order, according to Wisconsin Public Radio

“Judges will be in a better position to prevent horrific incidents like the Waukesha Christmas Parade massacre and other heinous acts committed by criminals out on bail,” Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said in a January statement.

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Question #2: Cash bail before conviction. “Shall section 8 (2) of article I of the constitution be amended to allow a court to impose cash bail on a person accused of a violent crime based on the totality of the circumstances, including the accused’s previous convictions for a violent crime, the probability that the accused will fail to appear, the need to protect the community from serious harm and prevent witness intimidation, and potential affirmative defenses?” 

This question, in addition to gauging public opinion on expanding the constitutional definition of what entails “serious harm,” considers the possibility of imposing bail based on other circumstances. 

State law currently constitutes that cash bail is determined by only one factor: the likelihood of the accused to return for their court appearance. A “yes” vote on this amendment would provide more ground for judges to consider when setting bail amounts, including any prior convictions, while a “no” vote would maintain current state law.

This change to the bail system has the potential to affect tens of thousands of people, increasing their chances of staying in custody for crimes they haven’t been convicted of, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison Law Professor Adam Stevenson in an interview with WPR. 

In January, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin opposed the amendment in written testimony to state lawmakers. The ACLU testified changes to Wisconsin's cash bail were an opportunity for the wealthy to buy their way out of jail time while reinforcing a “systematic disadvantage to people unable to afford the price of freedom."

Stevenson believes these additional criteria are likely to increase the number of incarcerated people in the state, augmenting costs for taxpayers. 

“Increased incarceration may not have the effect of decreasing crime,” he told WPR in March, adding that cash bail reforms could lead to overcrowding in Wisconsin jails. 

Question #3: “Shall able-bodied, childless adults be required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits?” 

This nonbinding referendum proposes expanding eligibility requirements for state Medicaid benefits to include proof of an active search for work for childless program recipients. A “yes” vote signals approval of work requirements and a “no” vote signals disapproval, though the resolution’s outcome will have no effect on state law.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) noted in January there were no current work-search requirements for Medicaid recipients despite strong support for added requirements among Republicans, according to the Associated Press

"It's so important to show the support of Wisconsin voters that, if you're going to receive welfare benefits, you need to apply for work," LeMahieu said, according to Wisconsin Public Radio

Democrats argue the question is misleading because many state-run welfare programs already include work requirements to receive benefits, mainly in the form of weekly “work search actions,” according to the Wisconsin Examiner. The referendum does not specify which welfare programs the question applies to.

Additionally, Democrats claimed Republicans added the question on the ballot to increase conservative voter turnout for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election between liberal Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former conservative Justice Daniel Kelly.

“Their resolution … attacks low-income people in the state of Wisconsin, and it's born out of a consideration to their base for the spring election," Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) said at a press conference in January, according to the AP

The winner of the Wisconsin Supreme Court election on April 4 will determine the court’s ideological balance, which is currently a 4-3 conservative majority.

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Maggie Zale

Maggie Zale is a senior staff writer at The Daily Cardinal.

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