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Wisconsin bill that would return 17-year-olds to the juvenile system dies, but proponents see progress
No second chance -- yet
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State Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) and Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) sponsored a bill to return 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system.

When state Rep. Garey Bies was a deputy for the Door County Sheriff's Department, he wasn't particularly sympathetic to lawbreakers.

"Back then I had a different mindset of catching bad guys and locking them up," says Bies, a Republican who represents Sister Bay.

Today, Bies realizes not all people who break the law are hardened criminals. Some are just kids who make a foolish mistake.

It's why Bies co-sponsored a bill to return 17-year-olds who are charged with first-time, nonviolent offenses to the juvenile justice system. Despite widespread support, the bill died in the most recent legislative session after some counties raised alarms about the cost.

In 1996, Wisconsin changed its criminal code and began treating all 17-year-olds charged with crime like adults. It was approved during a period when juvenile crime was on the rise around the country and there was a push to get tough on crime.

Since the change, approximately 260,000 17-year-olds have been arrested for nonviolent offenses in Wisconsin, resulting in an estimated 80,000 of them spending some time in an adult jail, according to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

Groups like the council have been pushing each session to return 17-year-olds to the juvenile system, where, they argue, the teens can get more appropriate support and avoid being strapped with a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

"When you're 17, your brain is not fully cooked," says Bob Jacobson, communications manager for Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. "There is hope for kids who get in trouble when they're 17 and they can get their acts together."

Bipartisan support

Advocates almost got their wish this session. In the past, bills have attempted to return all 17-year-olds to juvenile court, but this year, they tried a more moderate tack. The Second Chance Bill (AB 387) would have returned nonviolent first-time offenders to juvenile court; violent and second-time delinquents would still be processed in the adult system.

It had widespread support in both parties, with more than 50 co-sponsors, Bies says. Both Gov. Tommy Thompson (who was governor when Wisconsin lowered the age) and Gov. Jim Doyle (who was attorney general at the time) wrote editorials in favor of it. A few counties, including Dane, also supported the change.

But several other counties raised alarm. Kyle Christianson, director of government affairs for the Wisconsin Counties Association, says county governments support the concept but don't want to be left footing the bill.

"How much it's going to cost is difficult to come by," says Christianson. "Will it be $10 million a year? It could be higher; maybe it's lower. We're asking that if this is passed, there be some sort of reimbursement system."

Racine County in particular raised concerns about the cost. It estimated it would have to come up with an extra $2.3 million a year to deal with 316 17-year-olds. Both the state Department of Corrections and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau found Racine's estimates to be inflated.

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families estimates that statewide, about 2,000 teenagers would be affected each year by the change, costing an extra $8 million to $10 million annually.

Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), who sponsored the bill in the Senate, says the change would ultimately save money. "All the numbers show that juveniles who go through the juvenile system are reoffending at about half the rate of those who go to the adult system," Petrowski says. "This also saves money."

In the end, the counties' concerns won out. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican who represents Racine County, refused to schedule a vote on the bill. Kit Beyer, spokesperson for Vos, did not return numerous phone calls from Isthmus.

Petrowski and Bies say that Gov. Scott Walker's office has agreed to take a look at the issue and address it in the next budget, perhaps by tweaking the youth-aid formulas to ensure the counties get the money they need to deal with teenage delinquents. If addressed in the budget, the change would take effect after July 1, 2015.

There are currently only 10 states that treat 17-year-olds as adults, and at least one of these -- New Hampshire -- is on track to raise the age back to 18.

Bies, who is retiring, won't be around to champion the change within the Wisconsin Legislature. But he says he’ll push for it as a resident.

"This would be a good start in reducing our prison population and giving young people an opportunity to see the bad road they're going down and turn their lives around," Bies says. "I won't be in the Legislature, but I'll be reminding people and looking for someone in my time left to take up the torch for me."

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