The cost of courts: how cash bail impacts Wisconsin communities

LA CROSSE (WKBT) –When it comes to a crime, money can determine when a suspect is released from jail.

The suspect in the Waukesha Christmas parade tragedy posted $1,000 cash bond 10 days before prosecutors he killed 6 people. The incident has raised questions about violent criminals being released on low amounts of bond. but experts say cash bond isn’t just about violent criminals. It impacts people who can’t afford to pay.

The cost of a crime comes down to many factors. For the suspects, it can depend on how much they can afford.

“We associate money with risk,” said Michele LaVigne.

LaVigne has been studying Wisconsin bail laws since 2015. She wrote the manual for the state about bail in 2018.

“One of the things I did was drive around the state and see how bail gets set,” LaVigne said.

Bail is an amount of money a person has to post to be released from custody while their case is pending.

“What we’re essentially saying is what amount of money is going to make this person show up,” she said.

But not everyone shows up. In May, 17 year-old Jackson Greengrass was released on a $900 cash bond following his involvement in the death of 15 year old Storm Vondrashek.
Greengrass failed to appear in court and evaded authorities for nearly six weeks.

La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke says the primary purpose of a cash bail is flight risk.

“And even if you commit a very serious crime, you’re not supposed to be held in jail because you’re presumed innocent,” Gruenke said.

Under the Wisconsin constitution, a judge can decide what number to set bail at.

“They believe that amount of cash would be enough or if they believe that person doesn’t need to post cash. That’s the decision they’re making,” he said.

But reforming the system isn’t easy. In February, the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill for a state constitutional amendment to increase cash bail amounts to make it harder for those with a violent history to post bail.

LaVigne says cash bail allows people to be back on the streets based on their wealth.

“People who are rich are just as likely to be dangerous as somebody who is poor,” she said.

Grukene says bail should be based on a person’s age and their record.

“It should be based on the risk level, your ties to the community, your level of dangerousness, and not how much money you have as a person or community,” he said.

And while conversations around bail reform continue.

“Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys pay more attention to their decision making,” LaVigne said.

LaVigne says it’s up to local authorities to make decisions that put public safety over money.

LaVigne says people who can’t afford bail are more likely to become repeat offenders because they often lose their jobs which is why raising the amount of cash bail will impact poorer communities.