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Proposal Would Return Certain 17-Year-Old Offenders to Juvenile Justice System in Wisconsin

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Juvenile incarceration has been in the news lately. Authorities are investigating allegations of abuse and assault at Lincoln Hills School for Boys, north of Wausau. As 2016 gets underway, there's another reason the incarceration of youth could make headlines.

Right now, the state tries 17-year-old offenders as adults. But a bill would send non-violent ones through the juvenile system.

In 1996, Wisconsin changed its law moving 17-year-olds into adult court and prison.

But the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families is among groups wanting to roll back the change.

Jim Moeser is deputy director of the advocacy organization. He says "the juvenile system does a much better job working with them" because it offers a better range of services.

"Everything from having kids pay restitution, to help them deal with some of their decision-making skills, drug and alcohol services," Moeser says.

Moeser's organization will encourage legislators to change Wisconsin's law in 2016. Previous efforts have failed. Yet he has high hopes because the bill this time has bipartisan support.

If the group succeeds, non-violent 17-year-olds would go on trial at children's court on Watertown Plank Road.

"It's absolutely the right thing to do," says Mary Triggiano, the presiding judge.

"If we're keeping them in the adult system around very violent high-risk offenders, we often see those kids responding and learning that behavior," Triggiano says. She adds that the brains of 17-year-olds haven't developed fully, so neither have their decision-making skills.

Andre Brown is a Milwaukee man whose actions at age 17 landed him in the adult system. He had punched a classmate.

"Even though I heard my uncles and my mother in the back of my head (saying) 'this is wrong,' I didn't have enough discipline in myself to keep myself from doing what I did," Brown says.

These days, Brown is a case manager for Project RETURN and helps inmates re-enter the community. He says it's especially tough to find them work if they went to prison when they were just 17 with no job skills.

And an adult criminal record can haunt them, according to Steve Dykstra. He works with at-risk youth as director of Milwaukee County's Mobile Urgent Treatment Team.

Dykstra asks, "Something you do when you're 17 years old, how long should it mark the rest of your life? Should it still be a thing that defines jobs you can get when you're 30? When you're 40?"

Yet Milwaukee Ald. Mark Borkowski isn't sympathetic.

"It seems like we're making everything way too easy. We need to put the hammer down and let people know that there are consequences," Borkowski says.

Borkowski says young people have been getting involved in more serious crimes, including auto thefts. He says they're technically non-violent, yet they can have deadly outcomes when the teen thieves speed and crash.

The Wisconsin Counties Association has fiscal concerns about returning some 17-year-olds to the juvenile system. Kyle Christianson is director of government affairs. He says the change would require counties to cover the cost of services. Christianson says if counties would not get more funding, juvenile offenders would lose.

He describes two scenarios: "The 17-year-old goes to the juvenile system and they get no services, or the 17-year-old gets services, but they're at the expense of 10-16 year olds who we're currently serving."

In the last few years, three states have returned 17-year-olds to juvenile courts. Wisconsin is one of nine states that still consider 17-year-olds as adults when it comes to crime.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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