A proposal to return first-time, nonviolent 17-year-old offenders to the juvenile justice system has broader bipartisan support than in the past but faces opposition from the state’s top law enforcement officer.
Advocates estimate the bill could cost counties as much as $10 million a year if about 2,000 17-year-old offenders were treated in the juvenile system rather than sentenced as adults.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, and Reps. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay; Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee; and Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood.
Kessler has proposed the change every session since 2005, but this time he worked out a compromise with Bies, the Assembly Corrections Committee chairman. Bies said he supports the compromise because it leaves violent offenders in the adult system.
“I’m strongly supporting this piece of legislation and will fight to get it through the system,” Bies said. “If we can give (juvenile offenders) an opportunity to change their life around through this procedure, it will pay us dividends in the future.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has not supported the proposal in the past, but is open to reviewing it this time, spokeswoman Kit Beyer said.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen doesn’t support the proposal, spokeswoman Dana Brueck said.
“Judges already have discretion, and we’re not aware of any issues that suggest that discretion is not being appropriately exercised,” Brueck said.
However, judges don’t have the discretion to refer 17-year-olds to a juvenile justice program, said Jim Moeser, deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.
Patrick Fiedler, president of the State Bar of Wisconsin and a former Dane County judge for 18 years, said he never sentenced a first-time, nonviolent 17-year-old to jail time, but a fine or probation was less constructive than a juvenile justice program.
The proposal comes as several other states such as Connecticut and Illinois have moved away from trying and incarcerating juveniles as adults. Behavioral researchers and the U.S. Supreme Court have said 17-year-olds are still in a developmental stage.
Wisconsin is one of 11 states that try 17-year-olds as adults. The others include Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Texas. North Carolina and New York try 16-year-olds as adults.
Wisconsin lawmakers lowered the age in 1996 as part of the 1995-97 state budget. At the time it was promoted as a tough-on-crime measure to combat a surge in juvenile crime.
But advocates of the current measure say juvenile crime peaked in 1994 and has continued to decline since. Only 2 percent of 17-year-old arrests are for violent crimes, Moeser said.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said the benefits of raising the age would be to keep 17-year-olds from having a conviction remain in the public record. They also wouldn’t be kept in adult jail while awaiting a preliminary hearing. But he doubted the juvenile system would be able to complete treatment for a 17-year-old before the offender leaves the system.
©2013 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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