Almost everyone who testified Thursday for a legislative bill that would place into juvenile court certain 17-year-old offenders said the idea is an admirable one.
The tension, however, lies in the cost and exactly who will pay for it.
Assembly Bill 387 – introduced Sept. 23 by Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, has bipartisan support. Deemed the “Second Chance Bill,” the measure, if passed, would move 17-year-old, first-time offenders who don’t commit a violent crime from adult court to juvenile court, where a conviction would have less of a chance of affecting future chances at employment, school and loans.
Wisconsin is one of only 10 states where children under the age of 18 are automatically treated as adults.
Supporters of the bill say it would reduce recidivism rates, as those who enter the juvenile system will be rehabilitated and not just thrown into a cell with an older, hardened inmate.
The bill has been introduced several times in the past few years to no success.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is against the move. He said the current system works well.
During a 3-1/2 hour public hearing Thursday in front of the Assembly’s Committee on Corrections – which Bies heads up – a large group of lobbyists and state officials spoke in overwhelming support of the bill. They said the bill’s price tag – estimated between $8 million and $10 million a year – is a small price to pay to ensure that teenagers are not haunted by their indiscretions for the rest of their lives.
“As a father and member of the legal community,” Wisconsin State Bar President Patrick Fiedler testified, “I believe that this legislation will make our communities safer.”
Those who opposed the bill – including the Wisconsin Counties Association – did so because they were worried that the cost would fall on local governments and not be appropriated in a state budget.
According to WCA senior legislative associate Sarah Diedrick-Kasdorf, the bill “takes resources our counties don’t have” to provide more services they already support to those 16 years old and younger.
“From a policy perspective,” she said, “[WCA] has supported the concept … but only with the fiscal support deemed necessary.”
Jason Witt, La Crosse County’s Human Services Department director, told the committee that the bill, if passed, would increase juvenile court cases in his county by as much as 25 percent. With no financial support, he said, that could mean less time for rehabilitation services for the delinquents with whom they already work.
“La Crosse County has seen losses in state and federal funding,” Witt said. “We are struggling to adequately support juveniles we currently have in the system.”
Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa said he hoped support of the measure would survive the cost concerns.
“In this day and age of deferred prosecution, I completely understand the fiscal issue,” he said. “[But] I think we all agree this is a good policy.”
Those who spoke out Thursday against the Assembly bill were far outnumbered by the supporters.
Several who spoke told the stories of family members and other Wisconsin residents affected by the current system.
“I am not asking nor implying that our youth should not be held accountable,” said Vicky Gunderson, an Onalaska woman whose 17-year-old son, Kirk, hung himself in jail in 2005, “but where is our accountability to your youth?”
Others told their own stories. Rodney Evans, president of the Milwaukee faith-based reentry program Project RETURN, told the committee of the harsh jailhouse culture he encountered when at age 17 he was put in the adult criminal justice system for committing burglary.
“I am a product of being sentenced to adult court,” Evans said. “It took me 25 years to get out of the system.”
Though some balked at the bill’s estimated price tag, others said the bill would save counties and the state money in the long run by reducing recidivism.
Adam Plotkin, legislative liaison for the State Public Defender, testified that it is cheaper to defend a juvenile for a misdemeanor than an adult. Though he said the change wouldn’t reduce expenses from a defense standpoint, Plotkin said “it’s a step in the right direction.”
The Senate version of the bill was introduced Sept. 24 by Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon. It was referred to the Committee on Transportation, Public Safety, and Veterans and Military Affairs.
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.