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Bill would shift some youth cases from adult court (UPDATE)

APPLETON, Wis. (AP) – Wisconsin lawmakers are considering a bill that would treat some 17-year-old offenders as juveniles rather than have them tried in adult court.

Since 1996, 17-year-olds have been charged in adult court, even when they committed nonviolent crimes. The so-called “second-chance bill” would allow nonviolent offenders to be handled in the juvenile system, the Post-Crescent Media reported. The change would allow some 17-year-olds to avoid an adult prison setting, and keep them from having tarnished adult records that could hurt them later in life.

State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, is among those who oppose the bill, saying the current law is fine as is. The measure has support from the State Bar of Wisconsin, the state public defender’s office and judges, including Outgamie County Judge John Des Jardins.

“I think it’s a very good idea,” Des Jardins said. “I don’t think a whole lot of thought went into changing the age from 18 to 17 at the time. … It was totally ill-conceived and a knee-jerk reaction to something.”

The law was passed in response to public sentiment to get tough on juvenile crime by prosecuting older offenders in adult court.

Des Jardins agreed that 17-year-olds should be charged as adults when their crimes are violent, but he said nonviolent offenders, such as those caught with marijuana, need rehabilitation more than punishment.

The second-chance bill would allow nonviolent 17-year-old offenders to stay out of adult court. But those who commit violent crimes would remain in the adult system, as would those with a prior record of delinquency.

The state Department of Justice said the current law is appropriate because the system allows for discretion in charging and sentencing decisions. Offering second chances could diminish efforts to provide public safety and hold offenders accountable, agency spokeswoman Dana Brueck said.

“Victims of crime never get a second chance,” she said.

The state Assembly’s corrections committee has already approved the bill. If it gets through the Legislature next year, it could take effect as early as January 2015.

Information from: Post-Crescent Media, http://www.postcrescent.com

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