The right is using the Wisconsin parade tragedy to attack bail reform — but they need a fact-check
After an SUV plowed through a holiday parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin on November 21, killing five people and injuring 48, including many children, hard-right pundits treated the subsequent arrest of Darrell Brooks like a gift.
Jennifer Van Laar, the editor of popular conservative blog Red State, tweeted, "FIFTY PAGES in Darrell Brooks' criminal record. Drugs, violence, crimes of moral turpitude, sexual offenses. But hey, let's allow him to bond out on $1000 even though he's charged with jumping bail."
Alt-right troll Jack Posobiec and COVID-19 disinformation spreader Chuck Callesto echoed this idea. Turning Point USA's Benny Johnson went a step further, blaming Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm for the incident. So did Mike Cernovich, who ripped into Chisholm as a "Soros DA," despite Chisholm never receiving money from George Soros or his affiliated PACs.
DA Chisholm, as a writer at Red State put it, is allegedly a "radical leftist who has sought to institute 'criminal justice reform' via 'bail reform.'" It is insinuated that Chisholm quietly ushered Brooks out on a serious and recent domestic violence charge on $1,000 bail, then rolled it back in the media after the tragedy, claiming that his deputy prosecutor made a mistake (Chisholm has now launched an investigation into the Brooks bail decision).
Such commentators are in desperate need of a fact-check.
Wisconsin is not like California or New Jersey, which saw bail reform legislation pass in the last few years. It has not had a substantial amendment to its bail law in at least 10 years, according to the Wisconsin state legislature's website.
However, the current law does state that a judge can hold a person charged with a crime in jail pretrial "only upon a finding by the court that there is a reasonable basis to believe that bail is necessary to assure appearance in court."
Besides which, if we look at bail reform on a statistical, rather than anecdotal, level, it does not reduce public safety. The vast majority of people facing charges return to court regardless of money bail. In addition, detaining people pretrial, effectively punishing poverty, is "criminogenic," because people lose their jobs and community ties are weakened.
"Money bail compromises public safety," according to analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative.
As Cernovich points out to support his cause, Chisholm has delivered criminal justice reform talking points. But Chisholm has rarely delivered anything on decarceration but talking points. The Democrat, first elected in 2006, has spent much of his career carefully avoiding policies that would make right-wing opponents angry.
In 2017, for example, Chisholm explained how he refuses to categorically drop marijuana possession cases, despite many of his peers elsewhere doing just that.
Chisholm is also the orchestrator of a national strategy to increase the use of drug-induced homicide prosecutions to people who sell drugs as murderers, despite people who have overdosed often not wanting this response. He has sent Assistant District Attorney Patricia Daughtery to national conferences to evangelize these prosecutions. Daughtery has gone so far as to advise officials to build cases using tactics that are disrespectful to the same people she is supposedly trying to protect, such as using the cell phones of people who overdosed.
Additionally, during Chisholm's tenure, Wisconsin had the highest rate of Black incarceration in the nation, with about 65 percent of Black Wisconsinites living in Milwaukee County. University of Wisconsin law professor Ion Meyn has raised concerns that part of this is due to higher prosecution rates and lower plea bargain rates for Black suspects.
Amid Chisholm's middle-of-the-road approach to his office, Milwaukee has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country, with 1,332 incidents for every 100,000 residents. His attempt to please everyone and incense no one has achieved little, and there are numerous progressive steps he should be taking. Chances are, the politicization of the Brooks case will increase the DA's timidity and push him in the opposite direction.
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