Dan O’Donnell explains how a decade and a half of disastrous policies from Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm culminated in the release of the Waukesha Christmas parade killer just days before the attack.
November 24, 2021
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has launched an investigation into what he called the “inappropriately low” bail set for Darrell Brooks, Jr., the suspect in the deadly Christmas parade attack in Waukesha.
Brooks, who faces five counts of first-degree intentional homicide, was freed after posting $1,000 bail even though he faces serious felony charges in two different open cases in Milwaukee. In the most recent, he allegedly “ran [the victim] over with his vehicle” in what proved to be an ominous foreshadowing of the horror he allegedly inflicted just days later.
“The bail recommendation in this is not consistent with the approach of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office toward matters involving violent crime,” Chisholm said in a news release, “nor was it consistent with the risk assessment of the defendant prior to the setting of bail.”
This is a nauseating lie: Inappropriately and dangerously low bail recommendations have been a hallmark of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office since Chisholm, a liberal Democrat, was first elected in 2007.
One of the nation’s first proudly progressive reformers elected as a major city’s lead prosecutor, Chisholm almost immediately implemented an “evidence-based approach” that relied heavily on deferred prosecution and early intervention programs aimed at keeping criminals out of jail. No longer would the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office request high bails for criminal suspects or even prosecute their crimes. Instead, they would pursue alternatives that Chisholm fully admitted would result in dangerous felons being released into the community.
“Is there going to be an individual I divert, or I put into a treatment program, who is going to go out and kill somebody?” You bet,” Chisholm said in a 2007 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Guaranteed. It’s guaranteed to happen. It does not invalidate the overall approach.”
From the moment he was sworn in, Chisholm understood that his radical reimagining of criminal prosecution would result in the loss of innocent lives but, chillingly, he viewed this as a necessary sacrifice.
In 2010, the Journal Sentinel reviewed Chisholm’s deferred prosecution program and found “dozens of examples that raise questions about how the…program is being implemented.”
More than 200 defendants charged with such serious offenses as felony sexual assault, armed robbery, felony assault of a police officer, felony child abuse, and high-volume cocaine trafficking were never prosecuted. Easily the most stomach-turning was Cedric B. Young, 51, who was given a deferred prosecution agreement on charges of sexually assaulting a two-year-old girl.
He faced a maximum sentence of 60 years in prison but was never prosecuted after a psychologist his attorneys hired testified that “he did not consider Young a pedophile”—even though Young admitted to sexually assaulting a baby. He was released without ever serving a day in prison.
Of the more than 900 defendants who were given these sorts of sweetheart deals, 30 percent violated them by committing new crimes, failing to appear in court, or failing to fill court-ordered requirements.
At least a dozen defendants were given deferred agreements even though they already had extensive criminal records. One of them, Shermaine Worthy, “had had at least 14 prior felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug offenses, burglary, forgery, and escape before he got a deferred agreement in 2009 on marijuana and theft charges. Less than a week later, the agreement was revoked when he was arrested for breaking into a car.”
In several of the cases in which defendants violated their deferred prosecution agreements, Chisholm’s office refused to revoke the agreement and prosecute and instead extended the agreement.
One defendant, Dewayne Manuel, faced felony cocaine dealing charges and violated his deferred prosecution deal by stealing a car less than six months later. Rather than charge him with either crime, an assistant district attorney extended his agreement on the drug charges and gave him a new one that ran concurrently on the car theft charges.
Manuel could have served more than 13 years in prison, but instead, he only had to pay $123 in court costs.
In 2013, the family of a woman who died of a heroin overdose blamed Chisholm’s deferred prosecution program for keeping out of jail the man who provided the drugs that killed her.
Jeremiah Schroeder, 35, was charged with first-degree reckless homicide in the death of 26-year-old Cassandra Lutz. He had been charged the prior year with a felony for maintaining a drug house but given a deferred prosecution. Four months later, he was charged with another felony for possession of heroin with intent to deliver. His agreement was never revoked and he remained out on the streets.
“If he would have been in jail the way he should have been, this would not have happened,” her father told the Journal Sentinel. “She’d still be here.”
Chisholm refused to admit that his reforms were failing, and even as Milwaukee’s violent crime rate steadily rose throughout the early 2010s he insisted that his office’s policy of keeping offenders out of jail was an unbridled success.
In 2015, he was even profiled in a glowing column in The New Yorker entitled “How to Stop Mass Incarceration.”
“Like many people in the criminal justice system, John Chisholm, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, has been concerned for a long time about the racial imbalance in American prisons,” wrote the now-disgraced Jeffrey Toobin. “Chisholm decided that his office would undertake initiatives to try to send fewer people to prison while maintaining public safety.”
Even Toobin had to concede that Milwaukee was a more dangerous place, as violent crime skyrocketed in Milwaukee (and across the country) in 2015, but Chisholm merely threw up his hands and refused to accept any blame, saying, “We redesigned our system, but we learned that no individual actor can change the dynamics of what goes on in a complex larger system like a city.”
In reality, one individual actor—Chisholm himself—had helped to change the dynamics of Milwaukee by keeping thousands of violent offenders out of jail or prison.
“On his watch, the overall number of misdemeanor prosecutions in the county has dropped from 9,000 to 5,200,” Toobin noted. “Likewise, once Chisholm instituted a policy that all burglary-case filings must be approved by a senior prosecutor, the disparity that led to more cases against white alleged thieves than black ones faded. The number of African-American residents of Milwaukee County sent to state prison on drug charges has been cut in half since 2006.”
From 2007—the year Chisholm became Milwaukee County District Attorney—to 2015, Wisconsin’s prison population dropped from 24,500 to 22,000, and “most of the reduction [came] from Milwaukee County.”
During that same time period, FBI statistics showed that the violent crime rate in the City of Milwaukee skyrocketed from 1,403 crimes per 100,000 residents in 2007 to 1,506 per 100,000 in 2015. By way of comparison, the violent crime rate for the United States as a whole actually dropped from 472 per 100,000 people in 2007 to 374 per 100,000 in 2015.
During this period, Chisholm wasn’t just keeping often-violent offenders out of prison through deferred prosecutions and early interventions; he was also dramatically reducing bail for criminal suspects or eliminating it altogether.
In 2018, he bragged on Twitter about his office’s profile in the Safety and Justice Challenge organization’s annual report. The group, which “seeks to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails,” commended the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office for, as Chisholm put it, its “commitment to reforming and redesigning our system to achieve more just outcomes.”
“[From] the report: we are ‘focused on reducing the use of incarceration in all cases,” Chisholm tweeted. “Overall, prosecutors prioritize addressing the root causes of criminal behavior – substance use, mental health issues – and seek out alternative sentences, even for some violent offenders.”
He then quoted several assistant district attorneys who expressed their pride in how successfully they had kept these violent offenders on the streets of Milwaukee.
“I would say the biggest change that I have perceived is trying to find ways to avoid prosecution in more cases and to see what can be done in terms of alternatives to prosecution,” said one.
“We have really made a commitment to not keeping individuals held unnecessarily on cash bail in the Milwaukee County Jail,” added another.
Instead, they have released even the most violent of defendants to the custody of JusticePoint—a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating cash bail altogether and finding “alternatives to incarceration.”
A 2109 study by the John K. MacIver Institute found that bail amounts for serious crimes had dropped to shockingly low levels. A suspect charged with first-degree sexual assault of a child had bail set at just $750. Felony charges of hit-and-run causing injury resulted in $250 bail. Hit-and-run causing great bodily harm resulted in bail of $500. Even hit-and-run causing death produced a bail of just $5,000.
This is significant in light of a skyrocketing car theft and reckless driving crisis in Milwaukee. Motor vehicle thefts have been increasing ever since the Milwaukee Police Department announced a “no pursuit” policy in 2010, and are up a staggering 162 percent over 2020 so far this year.
With so many violent offenders out on bail or deferred prosecution agreements, it is little wonder that Milwaukee is more dangerous than it ever has been.
In 2020, the city saw a record 189 homicides—more than double the previous year and up 14 percent from the previous record set in 1991. Homicides had spiked in 1991 because of the discovery of the Jeffrey Dahmer murders, meaning that Milwaukee was deadlier last year than when a serial killer was roaming its streets.
According to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, a total of 919 people were shot in the city last year; an average of 2.5 per day. As of November 15, this year has been even worse with an average of 2.79 people shot per day and 170 total murders.
Yet even as all violent crime—rape, aggravated assault, armed robbery, and arson—has spiked over the past two years, Chisholm has refused to accept any responsibility. Instead, he told a progressive prosecutors’ conference in March that “deliberately manipulated scare stories about rising crime” are fueling “false information” about the utopia he has built.
“We can never, ever, underestimate the power of fear to create bad policy,” he said.
In truth, the worst crime policy in Wisconsin and perhaps America has come from Chisholm’s own office. Under his direction, criminals like Darrell Brooks, Jr. have routinely been given shockingly low bail and sweetheart plea agreements or never prosecuted at all. The horror in Waukesha is just now drawing national attention to it, but the Milwaukee area has been living—and dying—for 15 years with the unmitigated disaster of John Chisholm’s making.