This story was republished on Jan. 19, 2022 to make it free for all
Darrell Brooks Jr. should never have been on the street the night police say he murdered six and injured more than 60 at the Waukesha Christmas Parade.
He should have been in jail.
About two weeks before he allegedly drove his maroon Ford Escape onto the parade route, Brooks was charged with running over a female acquaintance with the same vehicle and was facing serious felony charges.
But the Milwaukee County district attorney's office recommended bail of only $1,000 in the attack on the woman — a stunningly low amount given the gravity of the charges and his past history of violence. A court commissioner granted the low bail.
If Brooks had been kept in jail to protect the community from a dangerous career criminal, the carnage in Waukesha might have been avoided.
The court system has much to answer for in this tragic case, and we’d begin with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who acknowledged within hours of the Waukesha attack that the bail Brooks received was “inappropriately low.”
What Chisholm hasn’t done is explain what his internal review has found or recommend any ways to reduce the risk of this happening again. The DA needs to get to the bottom of this and quickly. And he must be transparent with the public every step of the way. We may learn more Thursday when Chisholm is expected to address the issue during a public County Board committee meeting.
The court commissioner in this case, Cedric Cornwall, and his colleagues ought to be asking themselves similar questions — and they, too, should publicly explain what they did.
The public wants answers and deserves them.
A Journal Sentinel analysis revealed that Brooks' bail in the earlier felony domestic violence case was much lower than average for similar open cases charged this year. The median bail for cases involving charges of felony bail jumping and second-degree recklessly endangering safety, two specific charges faced by Brooks, was $5,000. Reporters analyzed the bail amounts actually set by court commissioners or judges; online court records do not report the prosecutor’s recommendations.
Here’s what we know:
Brooks was charged in July 2020, with two counts of second-degree reckless endangering safety and one count of possession of a firearm by a felon. He was accused of getting into a fight with a relative and firing a gun at the relative and a friend, court records show. His bail in that case was initially set at $10,000, then reduced to $7,500.
Prosecutors say they were ready for trial on Feb. 9 but another trial was going on in the same court and the case was postponed. Brooks had filed a speedy trial demand, as was his right, which meant that if prosecutors and the court could not meet a 90-day deadline to set a trial date, the defendant had to be released on bail.
After hearing arguments, Judge David Feiss dropped Brooks’ bail once more — this time to $500 — and Brooks posted it on Feb. 21, court records show.
Less than nine months later, on Nov. 2, Brooks allegedly attacked the female acquaintance, punching her and driving over her leg with the Ford Escape. In all, he has been charged with crimes 10 times since 1999, including a guilty plea at age 17 to a felony charge of inflicting substantial bodily harm against another person, according to court records.
An assistant district attorney two years out of law school, Michelle A. Grasso, initially recommended the $1,000 bail but did not appear at the hearing where bail was set. Assistant district attorney Carole Manchester, a veteran prosecutor, was there that day to represent the state. Cornwall approved the low bail for Brooks.
All involved should have had access to an assessment of the risks posed by Brooks; such assessments typically are prepared to help to guide bail decisions. Given his record of past misdeeds, it's hard to believe that the assessment would have justified such a low bail amount. In fact, it appears to have shown just the opposite.
Did anyone even bother to read the assessment?
Now, Brooks is charged with six counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the Waukesha attack. Bail has been set at $5 million.
Some Republicans in the Legislature are vowing to propose bills to set minimum bail amounts and strengthen the ability of judges to consider public safety when they set bail.
We encourage all elected officials to be careful and to listen to experts in reforms that have helped reduce violent crime and recidivism without causing more inequity and injustice. Bail can be a blunt instrument that can discriminate against poor defendants while providing little benefit for public safety. Wisconsin judges already have the ability to consider public safety when they set bail conditions.
Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett, a Republican, cautioned lawmakers about acting without thinking the issue through. Gossett says cash bail isn't very effective; he favors a different system where defendants are either held or not held according to how dangerous they are believed to be to the community.
"I think this is an opportunity to have some meaningful discussions and look at some some reform measures," Gossett told the Journal Sentinel's Dan Bice. "Overall, our system would get better if we would just simply get away from a cash bond system."
The pandemic has upended the court system. Unable in some cases to provide speedy trials, as the Constitution guarantees, there is pressure to release suspects on bail.
“We are now facing, in Milwaukee County, a backlog to the tune of two years when it comes to trials,” Mary E. Triggiano, Milwaukee County chief judge, told The New York Times last week. “The whole ecosystem is interconnected, so everything — the courts, jails, bail — is affected by the crisis,” she added. “We are struggling with this every single day.”
Perhaps Milwaukee County can put some of its mostly unspent federal COVID relief money to use clearing the backlog.
Chisholm is part of a bipartisan national movement to reform cash bail, Gossett told Bice. And Chisholm has been a leader in finding alternative ways to deal with low-level offenses that clog jails and court dockets.
When it comes to non-violent crimes, that's the right thing to do. It is not the right thing to do with violent offenders like Brooks.
That said, it appears that his low bail might have been a mistake and not evidence, as some claim, of a pattern by the DA of undeserved leniency. Overall, the median bail for a violent felony from 2011 to 2015 in Milwaukee County was higher than in other Wisconsin counties, according to the nonprofit Measures for Justice.
The public deserves answers from Chisholm. He must be open with his investigation and whatever consequences he deems appropriate. He has been silent up to now. That needs to change.
Court Commissioner Cornwall should explain himself as well and so should Triggiano, the judge who oversees the court system in the county.
Both the DA and courts need an effective plan — devised in public view — to ensure that our community is kept safe from the likes of Darrell Brooks, Jr. and to ensure that this sort of tragic mistake never happens again.
That is, after all, their No. 1 job.
Editorials are a product of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin editorial board, which operates independently from the network's news departments. Email: email@example.com
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha parade: Chisholm must explain low bail for Darrell Brooks Jr.