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Waukesha Tragedy Highlights the Problem With Cash Bail

Partisan actors and analysts turned a moment of mourning into a megaphone for their own agenda.

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A holiday celebration turned tragic last week when an SUV was driven through a parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, killing six and injuring 62 others. Democratic and Republican leaders issued a joint call pleading with activists and pundits not to politicize the event, but the defenders of wealth-based detention instead seized upon an opportunity to capitalize on a tragedy.

Partisan actors and analysts turned a moment of mourning into a megaphone for their own agenda, highlighting the fact that the man behind the wheel — who is now facing at least six homicide charges — had recently been freed on a $1,000 bond for prior offenses. This, they say, should spark a backlash to bail reform.

In reality, it just shows the depths to which the nationwide for-profit cash bail machine will stoop to defend a broken, unsafe system. The bloodshed was another sad example of the human toll of substituting money for a measure of public safety. In fact, the driver’s previous risk assessment had flagged a potential need for preventative detention. But instead a money bail was set.

"The problem with our money bail system is money," Insha Rahman, vice president of advocacy and partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice, said Wednesday on Fox News. "Money is not a good determinant of whether somebody will be safe when they’re released pre-trial."

Her message was matched by David H. Safavian of the American Conservative Union, who wrote in the Washington Examiner today.

“Those employing straw-man arguments against bail reform fail to acknowledge that different people charged with different crimes pose different risks,” he wrote. “It is easier to complain on Facebook about a system that is broken than to make actual improvements.”

So much of the debate about the criminal justice system is framed as “tough-on-crime” vs. “reform.” But a system that allows the dangerous yet wealthy to buy their freedom pretrial is hardly tough on crime. It is tough on the poor and working class who get stuck behind bars simply because they can’t write a check. It is tough on the families and businesses who lose loved ones and employees to unnecessary wealth-based detentions. And it is tough on the taxpayers who have to pay for expensive, overcrowded jails. But the defenders of the cash bail status quo just don’t seem to care.

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