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La Crosse library forum to explore 'Unseen Costs of Cash Bail'

La Crosse library forum to explore 'Unseen Costs of Cash Bail'

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On its surface, cash bail seems simple, say county officials. Defendants give money to the court and promise to come back for hearings in exchange for getting out of jail.

But scratch the surface, and it’s clear that cash bail has a much larger impact on people in poverty.

“Cash bond is kind of a complex issue when you really start to break it down and what it means,” said Mandy Bisek, La Crosse County’s Justice Support Services manager.

Mandy Bisek

Bisek

Bisek, La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke and Judge Elliott Levine will speak at an event titled “Unseen Costs of Cash Bail” at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the auditorium of the La Crosse Public Library, 800 Main St.

The event, which is free and open to the public, will go over the basics of the bond system and the ways the people who make bond decisions try to make it more fair, particularly to those living in poverty.

Elliott Levine

Levine

“The way that cash bail is set up specifically in Wisconsin really does make it so that justice is available based on the amount of money that you have,” Bisek said.

La Crosse County sees people accused of crimes who often are living paycheck to paycheck, without $50 to spare, much less $500 for a low cash bond, she said. Those people are left in the La Crosse County Jail while someone accused of the same crime with the same bond is able to get out.

Basing it on cash doesn’t make for a super safe system, she said, because anyone with enough money can get out of jail.

“When you look at cash bail as an infrastructure that we have based so many people’s freedoms on, it comes down to their access to money, and that doesn’t feel right,” Bisek said.

Bisek’s department is in charge of implementing an objective assessment tool, as well as monitoring people out on bond. JSS staff members use factors to determine how likely someone is to return to court and how dangerous they are to let out in the community. When they are out on bond, JSS monitors defendants with GPS, conducts drug testing and connects them to resources

Tim Gruenke

Gruenke

The main purpose of bond is to ensure people appear in court and to protect the community, Gruenke said.

“Posting money doesn’t really have a lot to do with whether people show up for court or not, but that’s the system that Wisconsin has, so we’re stuck with it,” Gruenke said.

Keeping everyone in the jail isn’t an ideal solution.

“Incarcerating more people is, first of all, expensive. We shouldn’t use it unless we really think we need to use it,” Gruenke said.

Second of all, when the state incarcerates people it doesn’t need to, those people lose productivity, separates them from their family and could even cause them to lose their job, a job they may depend on to keep their children fed and a roof over their head.

“It’s chaotic for anybody to lose a job,” Gruenke said. “It’d be a pretty big, major influence in their life, and it may cause problems in the rest of their life. It’s just that much harder to get back on your feet.”

While sometimes people are really dangerous and need to be incarcerated, he said, but whether someone is kept in the jail shouldn’t be decided by how much money they have.

“It affects their work and their family life. People who have money don’t have to go through the same problems,” Gruenke said.

There’s a conflict inherent in the system where on the one hand, people may seem a danger to the community, Gruenke said, but on the other hand they are presumed innocent and haven’t been convicted of doing anything wrong.

Barry McKnight mug

Barry McKnight

The discussion is a complex one, said La Crosse Public Library programming and community engagement coordinator Barry McKnight.

“We’ve been talking about this idea for a little while, and we thought this would be a good time to have a community discussion about how cash bail/bond works, the inequities in the system and how the whole thing affects La Crosse and Wisconsin,” McKnight said.

Bisek jumped at the chance, saying it was important to take advantage of every opportunity to educate the community and answer any questions people have.

“This is a really important conversation, one that our community seems to be very interested in,” Bisek said.

McKnight agreed, saying the library’s position as a neutral party makes it an ideal forum to discuss the issue.

“We try to have an open and civil discussion about some of these issues. I think that’s something that libraries in general are ideally suited for and certainly that’s a role we want to have in our community,” McKnight said.


Jourdan Vian can be reached at jvian@lacrossetribune.com or follow her on Twitter at @Jourdan_LCT.

“We’ve been talking about this idea for a little while, and we thought this would be a good time to have a community discussion about how cash bail/bond works, the inequities in the system and how the whole thing affects La Crosse and Wisconsin."

Barry McKnight, library programming and engagement coordinator

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“Posting money doesn’t really have a lot to do with whether people show up for court or not, but that’s the system that Wisconsin has, so we’re stuck with it.”

Tim Gruenke, La Crosse County DA

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