For thousands of Wisconsin defendants accused of crimes, they need to put up cash to get out of jail.
When defendants — even ones facing serious charges with massive bail in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars — have money or community support, getting out from behind bars can take just days or weeks.
But for those facing bail bonds of only a couple hundred dollars who don’t have support or deep bank accounts, they can languish in jail for months, sometimes taking deals that don’t serve them well in the long term simply because they want to end the court process, because they want to stop waiting, to get back home or go to prison quicker, to get out.
Advocates, and now the Wisconsin Office of the Public Defender, say this is unjust and makes a mockery of the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” since freedom from jail while facing criminal charges is based not on someone’s risk to reoffend but on access to money.
“It is better to be rich and guilty than it is to be poor and innocent, in the system of bail,” said Mary Hooks, a Racine native and Carthage College graduate now living in Atlanta who has become a foundational leader in the nationwide movement to do away with cash bail, with Illinois becoming the first state to abolish it earlier this year.
“No one should have to sit in a cage for money,” Hooks said.
Said Adam Plotkin, legislative liaison for the state Office of the Public Defender: “We need to stop using cash as a proxy for public safety.”
There have been cases like those of Kyle Rittenhouse and Chrystul Kizer, teenagers who have become internationally recognized after admitting to killing people in Kenosha in what they argue was self-defense. When supporters rallied to their respective causes, $2.4 million in bail money combined was donated and they got out from behind bars.
They are the outliers: People from working-class backgrounds who got out of jail because strangers came to care about them.
More common are cases like that of Traoun D. Oliver-Thomas, a Racine teenager abandoned by his parents and who couldn’t afford $120 to pay for a GPS tracker to get out of jail. He did not benefit from massive online fundraisers. There was no national press coverage. Nobody made #FreeTraoun T-shirts. He was stuck in jail for more than a year.
Two teens out, one in
The similarity between Kizer and Rittenhouse isn’t just that they pulled a trigger with fatal consequences, but that people cared about them afterward, even if the political leanings of their supporters diverge dramatically.
Both were 17 when, they each admit, they used a gun to kill a person — in Rittenhouse’s case, two people.
Both were raised by single mothers who have been fiercely supportive since their arrests. Both were from low-income families, qualifying for public defenders, although in Rittenhouse’s case donated cash has been used to hire a private attorney. In both cases, there have been vocal public campaigns arguing that the prosecution is unjust, with both teens’ camps arguing they acted in self-defense.
Rittenhouse — who traveled on Aug. 25 from his home in Antioch, Ill., to Kenosha during the protests and rioting after a black man was shot in the back by a white Kenosha police officer — was carrying an AR-15 on Sheridan Road when he fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum; video of the event shows Rosenbaum charging at him and throwing a plastic bag toward him before Rittenhouse shot him in the head. Soon after, Rittenhouse fatally shot Anthony Huber, who was wielding a skateboard while among the group trying to run down Rittenhouse for shooting Rosenbaum. Gaige Grosskreutz, who was carrying a handgun, was shot in the arm moments later.
Fundraising efforts supporting the teen, who reportedly wants to become a police officer, have been haphazard. Online fundraisers supporting him appeared, then disappeared quickly, often because websites like GoFundMe didn’t want to appear to support such a controversial cause.
Still, with all the international attention, it took only a few months for thousands of people to cumulatively donate the $2 million to get Rittenhouse out of jail.
Unlike Rittenhouse, Kizer knew who she killed.
Randall Volar III was a 34-year-old who, according to Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley, was in June 2018 hours away from being arrested for crimes related to sex trafficking. But Kizer — who had allegedly been trafficked, abused and raped by Volar — killed him and set his Kenosha home on fire before driving home to Milwaukee in his car.
Kizer and Rittenhouse both face the possibility of spending decades, if not the rest of their lives, in prison if convicted.
As for Oliver-Thomas, his childhood was filled with trauma, including homelessness. His father wasn’t in his life. His mother, a drug addict, didn’t even visit him during his 14 months in jail.
In 2019, when Oliver-Thomas was 17, he went along with another 17-year-old, Joseph Langenfeld, to rob another teen. A friend of Langenfeld’s had made unfounded accusations against the other teen, according to police. Oliver-Thomas and Langenfeld filmed the attack, in which it was shown that Langenfeld was the one who whipped and threatened the victim with what looked like a firearm but was actually an air gun.
“This is a good kid who’s had a crappy life,” defense attorney Jamie McClendon said of Oliver-Thomas, “and I’m not going to let the justice system beat him up anymore.”
After four months, Langenfeld got out of jail by posting $5,000 in bail, thanks to supportive parents. Oliver-Thomas stayed behind bars. After being charged in December 2019, Oliver-Thomas could’ve gotten out of jail within months if he could have afforded $120 upfront, then $6 a day to pay for a GPS-tracking tracking bracelet.
Without any access to cash, he stayed in jail.
Oliver-Thomas became one of dozens in the Racine County Jail to catch COVID-19 in 2020, McClendon said, which further delayed his court case because he had to miss hearings while in quarantine.
He didn’t get out until McClendon appealed to the Racine County Alternatives Program, the nonprofit that provides pretrial supervision to Racine County’s criminal courts, to have the $120 waived. The nonprofit endorsed the exemption.
Two types of supporters
Rittenhouse clearly remains the most high-profile figure of the three.
After prosecutors alleged Kyle Rittenhouse was flashing white power signs and being serenaded with the Proud Boys anthem during a recent visit to a tavern, his defense attorney filed a response calling the state’s actions “a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to inject the issue of race” into the case.
#FreeKyle shirts have been seen at rallies of the Proud Boys and other conservative groups from coast to coast as gun rights advocates take up his cause. He’s viewed as a hero by many Second Amendment advocates. Celebrities such as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and actor Ricky Schroder have backed his cause.
Where the money from Rittenhouse’s $2 million bond will go after the case concludes remains up in the air. Two attorneys who no longer represent Rittenhouse, Lin Wood and John Pierce, each claim they should collect it: Wood says he raised the money but Pierce says the $2 million should be his because he was the one who actually posted it. Either way, the donors who actually put up money to free Rittenhouse from jail will almost certainly never get their money back.
The fact that Rittenhouse has no stake in the millions of dollars has raised concerns for prosecutors, who have argued it makes Rittenhouse less willing to actually show up to court, since he has no money to lose if he misses a hearing.
In Kizer’s case, her support comes from progressive groups who see her case as an example of a legal system that targets people of color with overly harsh prosecution while also ignoring the trauma to young people who have been trafficked.
“There is a national effort to stop the prosecution of women who have taken action in defense of their own lives,” said Sharlyn Grace, the outgoing executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “We prioritize bonds for women in that circumstance.”
After Kizer’s trial, whatever the verdict, that money will go back into the Chicago Community Bond Fund. The CCBF can then recycle those dollars to get others out.
Grace said that the Chicago Community Bond Fund “would not have posted bond for Kyle Rittenhouse.”
Last November, Oliver-Thomas pleaded guilty. In February, he was sentenced to 18 months of incarceration. When that’s over, he faces two years of supervised release; one slip-up and he could land back behind bars.
Rittenhouse is scheduled to face a jury in November of this year.
While charges were filed against Kizer nearly 2½ years ago, there’s no trial scheduled right now. One had been scheduled in March 2020, before she got out of jail.
In many ways, out is better than in
Being out from behind bars has numerous benefits for defendants, advocates say.
Tony Messina, a criminal defense and immigration attorney, wrote for AboveTheLaw.com in 2019: “Being out of jail — rather than incarcerated — increases the odds a person can win his case. First, district attorneys are quicker to prosecute people in jail. The ‘out’ defendants get shifted to the back of their caseloads … Once out, a defendant can show he’s changed his ways. He can go back to school, pay child support or find a job. This puts him in a better position to ask for a less punitive plea deal, one that might not include jail at all.
“He’ll be able to visit his attorney more often. He can find witnesses and help develop investigative leads. In addition, he’ll be able to have a more normal life — working, being with family, attending rehab, sleeping better, dressing how he wants. In short, he’ll be better prepared to make cogent decisions about what to do with his case. He’ll also have less incentive to plead guilty if that plea mandates jail.”
Fewer than 7% of criminal cases end in a trial, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; the vast majority end with plea deals.
Hooks, the Racine native and Carthage alumna, blames this on what she calls “the slow death” of people languishing in incarceration and giving up on hope. With so many never getting their day in court, “you never know the truth of what happened.”
People walk out of jail accepting probation or prison terms, and there aren’t conversations “about the harm we caused” simply during someone’s jail time, Hooks said.
While Rittenhouse and Kizer are out on bond, Oliver-Thomas remains in the Racine County Jail, where he has been for most of the past two years.
Adam does a little bit of everything with the JT, from page editing to covering homelessness to localizing state & national politics. He grew up in Racine County, believes in the Oxford comma and loves digital subscribers: journaltimes.com/subscribenow
Having an inmate in jail costs taxpayers $51.46 per inmate, per day, on average. An ankle bracelet is an initial $120 and then $6/day afterwards; that cost is paid by the individual on release, not taxpayers.