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Evers pushes juvenile justice overhaul, legislature may push back

| Feb 23, 2021 | Criminal Defense

In 2018, former governor Walker and lawmakers agreed in principle to shut down the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons, which have a history of abuse. The idea was to replace them with several new facilities, including a new state prison for serious juvenile offenders and county-run juvenile facilities that would allow more average kids to be closer to home and family.

At the time, Milwaukee, Dane, Brown and Racine counties all expressed interest in opening such county-based facilities. Funding fell through, however, and Milwaukee, Dane and Brown counties have since pulled their applications.

Now, Governor Evers has proposed returning to those priorities, along with making some other changes to Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system by way of the state budget bill.

Ideally, our juvenile justice system would focus on rehabilitation and preventing recidivism. Part of that could involve replacing youth prisons with community-based programs that provide therapy, skill-building and other forms of support, according to one administrator from the Division of Youth and Family Services in Milwaukee County.

“We are striving to continue to find more effective ways to serve our youth, providing them with the skills, support, and structure they need to desist from committing crime and to lead safe, healthy, pro-social lives,” he told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Evers has made several other proposals, such as:

  • Raising the age for adult treatment in the criminal justice system to 18 instead of 17, in most cases
  • Allowing more individualized sentencing, including therapy, for people 18-25, recognizing that they are still developing mentally and emotionally
  • Expanding career and technical education programs in the youth correctional system
  • Creating a 30-bed behavior modification housing unit at Racine’s Youth Offender Correctional Facility, which would provide individualized attention to youthful offenders rather than punishing them with isolation
  • Eliminating the Serious Juvenile Offender program, which deals with youth convicted of serious and violent crimes, and replacing it with more options for courts to provide treatment for offenders and in sentencing
  • Spending additional money on addiction treatment and diversion programs
  • Funding additional courts, district attorneys and public defenders

Some critics of the proposals say that they shouldn’t be included in the state budget but passed as standalone legislation. They vowed to remove most of the proposals from the budget bill. However, nearly all the proposals will require funding sources in the state budget, so shunting them off to standalone legislation would likely preclude any actual implementation until the next budget, more than two years from now.

Others had more substantive concerns, such as how to deal with youth who have committed violent crimes in the absence of the Serious Juvenile Offender program and whether changes to youth sentencing would still hold offenders responsible for their actions. However, the proposals would allow courts to make those decisions on a more individualized basis. Most courts have been looking for this kind of flexibility for many years, and Wisconsin’s elected judges will certainly include offender accountability in their decisions.

It’s time to move to a more equitable, evidence-based system for youth offenders that recognizes their status as developing individuals who can be reformed. These proposals go a long way toward that goal.

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