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Why you should vote 'no' on two binding referendum questions on cash bail
Guest column by Kyle Johnson, organizer at Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC). "The referendum questions, if passed, have frightening legal implications."
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six-time TEN-TIME Milwaukee Press Club award-winningweekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Guest column by Kyle Johnson, organizer at Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC).
There is history in Wisconsin of people standing up for what is right. In the 1850’s, people from Wisconsin stood up to the institution of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act when individuals across Racine County helped Joshua Glover escape to freedom in Canada. A century later, Vel Phillips and the Youth Council of the NAACP marched together in Milwaukee for more than 200 consecutive nights in the fight for fair housing.
What we face now in the criminal justice system is an issue that continues to create separate classes of the American experience. Countless poor, working, and middle class Americans’ lives are destroyed by the legal system every year. Legal representation is not cheap, and studies have shown the differences in legal outcomes from the best lawyers money can buy versus overworked, underpaid, and understaffed appointed counsel around the state.
Your level of income should not dictate your accessibility to obtain justice, but it does. Under the presumption that you are innocent until proven guilty, and the right to a fair and speedy trial, belies the truth of our “justice” system – we hold these truths to be self-evident only for those who can pay for them.
Our government only has as much power as the people give it. On the ballot on April 4 will be two referendum questions regarding cash bail. These referendum questions are constitutional amendments, which means they will permanently alter Wisconsin law.
Currently, bail is issued on the condition of compelling an individual to appear back in court. Referendum questions No. 1 and No. 2 broaden that, giving judges more factors to look at when determining bail. The questions also seek to redefine “serious bodily harm” to “serious harm.” This is a dangerous proposed change by legal standards.
We need to vote “no” on referendum questions No.1 and No. 2 because they will not accomplish their intended purpose – community safety. Instead, a “yes” vote would give judges and the state legislature more power. That power will not stop crime, but respond to it in the same reactive way: by endlessly building jails and prisons, judging people by their worst mistakes and lowest moments, refusing to rehabilitate, rinse and repeat. If endlessly incarcerating folks were truly a deterrent, people would not commit crime.
The referendum questions, if passed, also have frightening legal implications. By redefining “serious bodily harm” to “serious harm,” Republicans, along with some Democrats in the state legislature who supported companion legislation to these proposed amendments, are imperiling democracy.
The change may seem to be a small one, but legally, it has wide-ranging potential consequences. With that change, the definition of serious harm can mean whatever the legislature wants, and the definition can be changed based on the whims of the legislature. What happens when protests are deemed unlawful assemblies and fall under “serious harm” to the community?
Those companion laws that passed with bipartisan support are: Assembly bill 54 and Senate bill 75. They contain 100 laws that qualify as serious harm. “Serious harm" means any of the following:
“Personal physical pain or injury, illness, any impairment of physical condition, or death, including mental anguish or emotional harm attendant to the personal physical pain or injury, illness, or death. Damage to property over $2,500 in value. Economic loss over $2,500 in value”
Referendum questions No. 1 and No. 2 are an opportunity to take a step against government overreach. It is a direct opportunity for the people of this state to affirm our unalienable rights to presumed innocence. An opportunity to demand an end to the vicious cycle of mass incarceration and pre-trial detention.
Vote “no” to referendum questions No. 1 and No. 2 to send the message that the wealthy of this country are not the only ones who should be able to await trial at home. Wisconsin, we have an opportunity to preserve jobs, education, and families by voting not to lock up thousands more people in already overcrowded jails to await trial, forcing innocent people to take plea deals to resume their lives. We have an obligation to say no to our impulse to be reactionary, to resort to the lowest common denominator, to seek endless punishment.
If community safety is truly the goal, we must embrace proaction, address the root causes of crime and move away from the financial implications that are tied to our legal system. Justice does not have a price, and our institutions should reflect that.
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Kyle Johnson currently serves as the Organizer for Black Leaders Organizing Communities in Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kyle is from New Jersey, and has always been passionate about history and politics, and how political power can drastically improve people’s lives if used in the right way. His walk through life as a Black Pansexual man informed their worldview to the injustices that occur in America, and hardened his resolve to take action and get involved. His goals and aspirations are to improve the lives and communities of Black and Brown people in southeastern Wisconsin, a change which he knows can reverberate across the state and the nation.
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