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Wisconsin Bail System Could See Reforms


Jails across Wisconsin are overcrowded and it is partly because there are huge populations of inmates who remain locked up because they can’t afford bail.

Some in the criminal justice system say that bail amounts need to be addressed.

“The system burns the poor,” defense attorney Peter Rotter of Wausau told USA Today Network reporter Karen Madden. “If you can’t come up with $250-500, you can’t get a lawyer and you just sit there.”

Even the lowest cash bails are out of the price range for indigent inmates, Rotter told USA Today. Meanwhile, as they rot away in jail they often lose their apartments, jobs and even their personal belongings. And all of this can happen well before a judge or jury has had the opportunity to decide if the person is guilty or innocent.

According to a 2019 report from Measures for Justice, a national group that tracks incarceration statistics, one-third of all county jail inmates in Wisconsin from 2009-2013 were locked up because they couldn’t pay low-cash bail.

The report says that there are 41,000 inmates in Wisconsin currently and 13,000 of them are in county jails.

“The problem is that people without money can sit in jail for weeks on charges as minor as stealing a small item from a store, while those with wealth can pay for their release after they’ve been accused of heinous offenses,” Representative Evan Goyke said.

Goyke has tried to get state leaders to reform cash bail practices by proposing that judges be required to review their decision to order a payment in cases where a defendant is unable to come up with the money.

Cash bail bonds are not necessarily based on case evidence. The presiding judge sets bail based on the charges and whatever information (usually limited) is available during a bail hearing. Defendants may seek assistance from a bondsman to post emergency bail bonds.

Proponents of reform are exploring the use of electronic monitoring day reporting or other means of keeping track of defendants while they are waiting to stand trial. Even under this system, they would have measures to make sure that the most dangerous offenders with a high chance of flight or re-offense would not be let out.