Wisconsin Proposes Overhaul of Youth Justice

In his proposed state budget, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has included legislation that would effectively reform the state’s criminal justice system, particularly targeting how youths are sentenced and receive treatment, reports Wisconsin Public Radio. But Republican objections to including the reforms in a budget measure may kill the bill. Evers proposes closing the long-troubled youth prisons Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. The legislation also includes an amendment to ensure that offenders who are 17 years of age wouldn’t be automatically treated as adults by the system, and a repeals of the Serious Juvenile Offender (SJO) program, which was created in the 1990s for youth convicted of the most serious crimes, and reportedly imprisons youth for longer periods of time and results in worse outcomes, including an increased likelihood of adult incarceration and behavioral health issues.

Evers proposes to replace the SJO program with an approach that will give courts more options for how to provide treatment for youth and more options in determining sentences. It would eliminate youth prisons and create more community-based facilities run by both the state and the counties. The governor is also proposing a Sentencing Review Council to study and make recommendations to: reform the state’s criminal code, have more equitable sentencing; change the state’s bifurcated sentencing structure, and reform possible sentences for violations committed by people between 18 and 25 years of age. Wisconsin is one of three states that automatically treats 17-year-olds as adults in criminal cases. Although Evers has said the justice system should be about accountability and opportunity for treatment and rehabilitation, joint Finance Co-chair Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said sweeping changes like what Evers is proposing don’t belong in the state budget and should be handled in standalone legislation. He predicts Evers proposals will likely be cut from the budget.

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