From The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis. (MCT)
Sept. 28--Wisconsin attorneys are pushing to undo a law -- enacted in the mid-1990s in reaction to a wave of juvenile crime -- that puts 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system.
The State Bar of Wisconsin is one of the lead groups lobbying for the "Second Chance Bill," a proposal that would put first-time, nonviolent 17-year-old offenders through juvenile court rather than adult court, where offenders can be sentenced to jail or prison.
"They end up experiencing something 17-year-olds shouldn't be experiencing," George Brown, executive director of the State Bar, said Thursday during a visit to Eau Claire.
Younger inmates can be abused by larger convicts or learn more advanced criminal techniques in jail, Brown said. Putting them into the adult justice system decreases their opportunities for jobs, good housing and joining the military, Brown said, but raises the likelihood they'll reoffend.
The state Assembly's Committee on Corrections will be the first to review the bill in a public hearing set for Thursday in Madison.
While previous efforts didn't get much traction, Brown said he's confident the current bill has the right scope and support to do well in the Legislature.
Lead authors of the bill in their respective houses -- Rep. Gary Bies of Sister Bay and Sen. Jerry Petrowski of Marathon -- are Republicans, which hold majorities in the Assembly and Senate. The bill has a total of 54 co-sponsors.
Rob Fadness, director of Eau Claire County's Children's Court Services, praised the bill as undoing the state's 1996 decision that turned 17-year-olds into adult offenders.
"I was not in favor of that law when it was first proposed," he said. "The juvenile system itself is set up and designed with the understanding that juveniles are not the same physically, mentally or emotionally as adults and therefore should not be treated the same as adults."
Fadness recalls that the change was made after juvenile crime peaked in the mid-'90s. But even by the time it was enacted, Fadness said the trend was receding.
"We had gone down two years prior to actual implementation of that law," Fadness said.
Juvenile referrals in Eau Claire County peaked in 1994 with 2,889 cases, he said. By 1996 it had dropped to 2,471 cases, and it has kept falling -- last year's caseload was 986.
A State Bar fact sheet on the bill also stated that juvenile crime has dropped after peaking in 1994.
Illinois and Connecticut recently approved laws similar to the "Second Chance Bill," leaving Wisconsin in the minority of states that treat all 17-year-old offenders as adults.
"We're now only one of 11 states that still has this," Brown said.
The Second Chance Bill still would send 17-year-olds charged with violent crimes, weapons offenses and some sex crimes directly to adult court. And juvenile courts would retain the option of sending nonviolent offenders to adult courts.
While Fadness and other supporters of the bill note the gains young offenders would get through treatment and staying clear of older criminals, the costs of the proposal are unknown. "That's the $10,000 question," he said.
In addition to moving more offenders into the juvenile justice system, Fadness noted that many offenders are monitored and given treatment through the county's Department of Human Services.
Fiscal estimates by three state agencies couldn't determine how much the bill would cost state or local governments.
A Department of Corrections fiscal estimate published Monday on the bill states that the bill would shift people and costs from the adult justice system into juvenile courts. While a price for that couldn't be accurately estimated, the department noted that juvenile detention, monitoring and treatment costs more than similar programs for adults.
Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board reported that a state branch of the League of Women Voters and the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families lobbied in support of the bill, in addition to the State Bar. However, the Wisconsin Counties Association has registered in opposition of it.
"The reason for our opposition is budgetary," said Sarah Diedrick, senior legislative associate with the Wisconsin Counties Association.
The bill fails to address the added costs for counties.
A precise estimate has been hard to make, Diedrick said, but a $10 million minimum cost is expected for counties. And in the last state budget, counties got their youth aids appropriation cut by that amount.
"They want to add more kids to the system at a time when we're still dealing with a $10 million loss in state funding," Diedrick said.
Dowd can be reached at 715-833-9204, 800-236-7077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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