Meet the Progressive DA Behind the Waukesha Bail Catastrophe

John Chisholm inspired progressive prosecutors like Chesa Boudin

John Chisholm / YouTube
November 22, 2021

"When we pay too little attention to the underlying causes and characteristics of individuals in the criminal justice system, we make significant errors, which can lead to greater problems," Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm wrote in a 2019 paper about criminal justice reform.

That was before Chisholm conceded Monday that he had set an "inappropriately low" bail amount earlier this month when Darrell Edward Brooks Jr., the lead suspect in Sunday's deadly car rampage in Waukesha, Wis., was arrested for domestic abuse and eluding police. Chisholm has been a leading figure among "progressive prosecutors," leftwing lawmen who favor diversionary programs and community-building to locking up criminal defendants. His handling of the Brooks case is already sparking blowback to their growing influence over the justice system, much of which has been boosted by financial contributions from the leftwing billionaire George Soros.

Chisholm, who was elected in 2007, supports deferrals for some misdemeanors and "low-level" felonies in order to cut down on incarcerations. And he's taken credit for inspiring a new wave of prosecutors in cities like San Francisco, St. Louis, and Philadelphia who have enacted similar reforms. Chisholm congratulated San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin following his election in 2019, and the pair spoke at a forum earlier this year on the status of the progressive prosecutor movement.

Chisholm and other progressives support reforms to the cash-bail system, which they say criminalizes poverty. He has acknowledged that his reform-minded approach could put murderers back on the streets of Milwaukee.

"Is there going to be an individual I divert, or I put into [a] treatment program, who's going to go out and kill somebody?" he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2007. "You bet. Guaranteed. It's guaranteed to happen. It does not invalidate the overall approach."

The Milwaukee DA said his office recommended $1,000 bail for Brooks following his arrest on Nov. 5 on charges that he punched his girlfriend in the face and hit her with his vehicle in a gas station parking lot. The woman is identified only by her initials in court papers, which indicate they have a child together. Brooks was also charged with eluding police officers when they arrived to take him into custody.

A review of Wisconsin court records shows Brooks may have been a familiar figure to Chisholm, given that he was arrested and charged about half a dozen times in Milwaukee County during Chisholm's tenure.

Brooks posted bail on Nov. 11. On Sunday, the 39-year-old aspiring rapper allegedly drove his red Ford SUV into a holiday parade in Waukesha, killing five people. Chisholm said Monday he is reviewing the bail decision for the earlier case, saying it was not high enough for a violent crime.

Brooks's release this month is not the first time he has been freed after prosecutors lowered his bail. Brooks, whose criminal rap sheet dates back to 1999, was released from jail in February after posting $500 bail on charges of reckless endangerment and felony possession of a firearm. Brooks's bail was initially set at $10,000 but was drastically lowered because the case was put on hold due to a backlog created by the pandemic.

Court records show that Brooks has two open felony cases in Milwaukee County, both of which involve violent crimes. One is the domestic abuse incident, which occurred Nov. 2. The other dates to July 2020, when Brooks had a fist fight with his nephew over an old cell phone at his grandmother's house. Brooks fired a 9mm Beretta at his nephew's car as he drove away from the house. He was arrested with the gun and a small amount of meth.

A search of Wisconsin court records shows Brooks has been charged in Milwaukee County for crimes ranging from marijuana possession to domestic abuse to weapons violations since 2011.

Chisholm has blamed "false information" and "deliberately manipulated" scare stories about rising crime for the sense of unease that is powering opposition to progressive prosecutors. "The progressive message is very difficult to get through," he has acknowledged, noting that he has repeatedly been the target of "conservative dark money" campaigns aimed at unseating him.

Chisholm has won favorable attention from leftwing criminal justice reformers for collaborating with the Wisconsin public defender, the state unit responsible for representing indigent defendants in court. Chisholm and a coauthor described that work in an extensive 2019 paper for the Harvard Kennedy School.

By their telling, prosecutors, public defenders, and community leaders work together to develop "community-oriented" practices that range from "antiracism" initiatives to diversionary programs for offenders they judge to be "low risk."

"In most cases, the punitive function of the criminal justice system must be recognized as subordinate to the system's preventive and remedial functions," the paper reads. "Punishment is appropriate only when it advances a preventive or remedial purpose."

Elsewhere in the paper, the pair write that punishment should never be the principal objective of a given defendants' case, even in "cases which threaten public health and safety in such primary ways that punishment is a key component of the response."

In a statement which took on a tragic double-meaning after Sunday's car rampage, the pair wrote that prosecutors should be mindful of stressors and other underlying causes that lead people to commit crimes, particularly when dealing with first-time offenders.