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"Second Chance" bill for 17-year-olds moving through Legislature

by Tim Morrissey

MADISON, Wis. (WNC) - In 1995, Wisconsin lawmakers decided 17-year-olds should automatically be treated as adults and tried for criminal offenses in adult court. But, 18 years later, the Second Chance Bill is moving forward, a measure that puts first-time nonviolent 17-year-olds in juvenile court instead. The Assembly Corrections Committee unanimously approved the bill Thursday.

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families has worked hard to make this happen and, according to Jim Moeser, deputy director of the group, a lot has been discovered about young offenders in the past eight years.

"We've learned a lot in the area of brain development, adolescent development, about how kids think," he specified. "We've learned a lot about sort of strategies that can address, and using what we've learned about how they think really lets us better intervene with them and get them to make better decisions, and we've done a lot of work in Wisconsin on improving practices at the local level."

Seventeen-year-olds who are charged with violent or repeat offenses would still be charged in adult court, but the changes proposed in the Second Chance Bill could affect as many as 2,000 teens who are now in the justice system.

Moeser said the adult criminal justice system is simply not geared to deal with the realities of a 17-year-old's world.

"We're seeing some positive signs in the adults, moving towards more diversion programs and things like that, but it's not a system that has the kinds of services or staffing aligned to really meet adolescent needs in terms of assessing them; it does not work with families," he declared. "For instance, we know that these kids still live with their families for the most part, (at) 17, 18, and even beyond that now."

Wisconsin is one of only ten states that automatically treats all 17-year-olds as adults for purposes of criminal prosecution. Moeser also pointed out that the Corrections Committee in the Legislature is composed of both Democrats and Republicans, and said moving the Second Chance Bill forward is a positive sign of bipartisanship in areas of public policy.

The Assembly Bill is AB 387; the companion Senate Bill is SB 308.