Wisconsin Dem Frontrunner Sponsored Bill To Eliminate Cash Bail

As state legislator, Mandela Barnes tried to bar courts from considering the severity of a defendant's crime

Wisconsin Senate candidate Mandela Barnes (D.) / Getty Images
December 6, 2021

The Democratic frontrunner in Wisconsin's Senate race sponsored a bill that would have ended cash bail and barred courts from using the severity of a defendant's crimes to argue against their release.

As a state legislator in 2016, Mandela Barnes introduced legislation to eliminate "monetary bail as a condition of release for a defendant charged with" a crime. Instead of setting bail, Wisconsin courts would be "required to release a defendant before trial" unless they found "by clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant would "cause serious bodily harm to a member of the community" if released. Under the bill, however, courts could not "use the nature, number, and gravity" of the crimes in question as the sole reason to keep someone behind bars, severely limiting prosecutors' ability to argue that the defendant would be a risk to the community.

Barnes's bill—which died in committee—came years after Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm espoused similar views in his inaugural campaign. Those views have faced renewed criticism in Wisconsin after Chisholm set what he later called an "inappropriately low" bail amount in the case of Darrell Brooks, who allegedly killed six people in a Christmas parade rampage just weeks after a domestic violence arrest. Chisholm, who in 2007 "guaranteed" his policies would put murderers back on the streets, let Brooks walk on $1,000 bail days before the parade tragedy.

Fond du Lac County district attorney Eric Toney said Barnes's proposal would erode the ability of prosecutors to keep dangerous people in custody. 

"These liberal proposals take tools away from prosecutors and allow dangerous criminals to remain free, making Wisconsin more dangerous," Toney, who is running for attorney general, told the Washington Free Beacon. "Violent criminals must be kept behind bars, period."

Barnes, who did not return a request for comment, has already faced attacks from Republicans over his ties to radical criminal justice activists. 

In September, the Democrat traveled to San Francisco to fundraise with the city's district attorney Chesa Boudin, the son of left-wing terrorists who has ended cash bail and declined to prosecute serial offenders. California state senator Scott Wiener also attended the event—Wiener has called to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which he labeled a "force of oppression" that makes "communities less safe."

Months later, Barnes received an endorsement from the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), a liberal activist group at the center of the movement to defund police. Barnes headlined a November CPD event to thank the group for its support, saying he was "very honored" to land its endorsement given its "amazing work … in states all across the country." CPD organized a number of "defund police" rallies in the summer of 2020, which the group says played a direct role in local officials' decisions to cut tens of millions of dollars from their police budgets. CPD also sponsors, a "comprehensive web resource where organizers can find everything they need for their campaign to defund police in one place."

Barnes became Wisconsin's lieutenant governor in 2019 after he and running mate Tony Evers defeated Republican incumbents Scott Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch by 1 point. Barnes now holds a 29-point lead in the Democratic primary race to succeed Republican incumbent senator Ron Johnson, internal polling from September shows. Other prominent Democrats vying for the nomination include state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks senior vice president Alex Lasry, and county executive Tom Nelson.

Should Barnes emerge from the crowded contest, it's unclear who he would face in November 2022—Johnson has not yet announced whether he will run for reelection.