Wisconsin needs to finally awaken to the folly of tossing 17-year-olds into the adult corrections system. And one significant step toward this goal is a bill just introduced by Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee).
Treating all 17-year-old offenders as adults, as mandated by state law, has never made sense to me. This cruel policy has come at a high cost - to our children and ultimately to the state budget.
The Democrats, who are now in full control of Wisconsin's government, have, with some Republican support, resurrected a bill to change the juvenile code. It provides a different funding mechanism than bills introduced in years past, but still faces an uphill fight. That's because it would hike short-term spending to treat juvenile offenders more appropriately, to avoid a long-term spike in the costs from turning them into lifetime offenders.
But, as the saying goes, a bargain is not a bargain if you don't have any money. And just because the cause is a just cause doesn't mean it will happen.
Wisconsin became one of just 13 states to treat all juvenile offenders as adults in 1996 during the heyday of the "get tough on crime" era. From the oval office to local government, no one wanted to be called soft on crime.
The problem is, this has led to policies that no one who understands corrections would consider smart on crime.
Kessler's bill, AB-732, would take place in two phases. Beginning July 1, 2010, it would treat misdemeanors and civil/ordinance violations by 17-year-olds as juvenile offenses. A year later, it would treat felonies by 17-year-olds as juvenile crimes as well. To my chagrin, it would still be possible to charge people 17 and younger as adults for some extremely serious crimes, like first-degree murder.
In a recent paper, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families notes that many 17-year-olds have no prior experience with the justice system. These are not hardened criminals. And most of them enter the justice system by committing nonviolent offenses.
The council reports that juvenile crime peaked in the early 1990s. Today, it's half of that. It's smarter for us to focus on prevention, intervention and redirection, to keep youthful offenders from becoming lifelong ones. This would, among other things, help reduce the disproportionate number of African American youth and adults in Wisconsin's corrections system.
Rep. Kessler is right on the mark saying that the issue is always what it will cost and who will pay. But, in the end, an effective juvenile justice system could save the $30,000-a-year cost of keeping a person in an adult prison.
The change would mean higher costs for counties, which bear the brunt of juvenile programs, but the state should find a way to help cover these costs. To this end, Kessler's bill includes a $14 surcharge imposed on traffic violators that would be distributed back to counties.
However it happens, a solution must be found to ensure that youthful offenders do not return to the justice system. Kudos to Rep. Kessler for showing leadership and getting the ball rolling this legislative session.
Steve Braunginn, a former Dane County Board supervisor and former head of the Madison Urban League, lives and writes in Madison.