March 7, 2022 – While the winter season doggedly persists with a new round of snow in much of Wisconsin, the legislature is nearly finished with the work of the 2021-2022 session. The Assembly has indicated that it has finished with its work, while the Senate will likely have one last floor period session this week to tie up loose ends. Several bills were passed in the last several weeks that now await action from the Governor, but by April, the work of the legislature will be complete. In this article, we’ll review the State Bar of Wisconsin’s legislative priorities and where they stand after the most recent session.
Civil Legal Aid
Wisconsin lags behind other Midwestern states when it comes to state investment in civil legal aid. The pandemic also increased the need for aid throughout the state. The State Bar, along with other civil legal aid stakeholders, worked to coordinate and consolidate the many stakeholders within the civil legal aid community into a more united voice, working together to advocate for an increased investment. In March of 2021, Governor Tony Evers released his proposed Wisconsin budget. It contained two proposals that would have substantially increased civil legal aid funding in Wisconsin. The first proposal, “Indigent Civil Legal Assistance”would have created a new allocation of $2 million per year administered by the Department of Administration. “Grants for Civil Legal Services”would have increased the state’s investment of federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families funding from $500,000 per year to $1,000,000 per year.
Unfortunately, these provisions weren't adopted by the Joint Finance Committee, and the final budget passed by the legislature kept civil legal aid funding at the status quo level of $500,000 per year. The State Bar will continue its leadership role in the alliance of civil legal aid providers and stakeholders, and is optimistic about increasing funding in the next budget.
For Capitol watchers, this session’s expungement reform effort,
Assembly Bill 69, may have seemed like a case of déjà vu. Like last session, the bill sailed through an early and fairly easy passage in the Assembly after an amendment, but stalled in the Senate. A majority of the Senate supports the bill, but a few key holdouts in the Republican caucus have kept Senate leaders from scheduling it for a floor vote.
Justice System Funding
The final budget included pay progression and new positions for Assistant District Attorneys. A separate bill (Senate Bill 62) addressed pay progression for state public defenders, a critical step to ensure that both prosecutors and defenders offices across the state can attract and retain vital, experienced attorneys within the justice system.
The budget also included funds to continue to expand 12 new circuit courts in underserved parts of Wisconsin, as provided by
Wisconsin Act 184, signed in 2020. This year, new courts will be established in Vilas, Eau Claire, Adams, and Waushara counties. Previously, new branches were established in Calumet, Dunn, Jackson, and Marathon.
Wisconsin is now one of only three states that still treats 17-year-olds as adults within the justice system. There was no legislative activity on this issue this session (unlike previous sessions which saw bills introduced). The State Bar will continue to play a role in advocating for this issue in the future.
The State Bar has long supported moving away from a cash-based bail system to one that uses validated risk assessment tools, most commonly known as “evidence-based decision making.” Several bills were introduced that would have modified how bail is applied in Wisconsin, and the State Bar sent a
memo to the legislature to urge legislators to re-examine the work that was done by the 2018 Legislative Joint Council Study Committee on Bail and Conditions of Pretrial Release. A separate proposal from Representative Duchow,
Assembly Joint Resolution 107, would allow for a constitutional amendment to be adopted in a future legislative session. The amendment would change the constitution’s language on pretrial release, potentially making it easier to detain the accused, but also potentially opening up the expanded use of evidence-based decision making tools. AJR 107 passed the legislature on March 1, 2022.
Law Enforcement Reform
In the summer of 2020, the Wisconsin Assembly formed the Speaker's Task Force on Racial Disparities, which culminated in a large package of reform bills, and in the Senate, Sen. Van Wanggaard introduced several reform bills as well. The State Bar took a position on several of these bills, following the work of the State Bar’s Racial Justice Task Force and the new policy positions adopted from its suggestions. Below is a brief review of the status of each of them.
Wisconsin Act 49 (Senate Bill 122): Changes to public notice requirements for law enforcement use of force policies. Signed by Gov. Evers on June 23, 2021.
Wisconsin Act 50 (Senate Bill 123): Directs DOJ to collect information and demographic data and publish annual reports on use of force incidents, injuries, and firearm discharges. Signed by Gov. Evers on June 23, 2021.
Wisconsin Act 51 (Senate Bill 124): Creates grants for community-oriented policing programs. Signed by Gov. Evers on June 23, 2021.
Wisconsin Act 75 (Senate Bill 120): Creates a standard use-of-force definition, reporting non-compliant use-of-force protocols, and whistleblower protections. Signed by Gov. Evers on August 7, 2021.
Passed by legislature and awaiting action by Governor
The following bills, all products of the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, were passed by both houses and sent to the Governor on February 28, 2022.
Assembly Bill 335: Grants to law enforcement agencies for body cameras.
Assembly Bill 333: Grants to law enforcement agencies for crisis response programs.
Assembly Bill 329: Requires DOJ to report on the use of no-knock warrants.
Other State Bar supported law enforcement reform bills
Senate Bill 118: Police Review of Force Board. Public hearings held, but not acted on in committee.
The following bills were part of the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, formed to respond to public concern over police brutality and racial discrimination in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Each bill was passed by the Assembly and had a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Judiciary, but that committee did not pass them.
Assembly Bill 330: Creates standards of training for law enforcement school resource officers.
Assembly Bill 331: Requiring prospective law enforcement officers to complete a psychological examination prior to employment as a law enforcement officer.
Assembly Bill 332: standards for law enforcement crisis response training.
Assembly Bill 334: Drug testing of law enforcement officers involved in certain critical incidents while on duty.