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Rotunda Report
  • Rotunda Report
    September 11, 2013

    State Bar Supports Returning Nonviolent 17-Year-Olds to Juvenile Court

    Sept. 11, 2013 – The State Bar of Wisconsin supports a bill currently being circulated by Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) and Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) that would give first-time nonviolent 17-year-old offenders a second chance by sending them back to juvenile court jurisdiction.

    The bill would reverse portions of a current law – enacted in 1996 in an effort to get “tough on crime” – which stipulates that any 17-year-old who is alleged to have committed a crime be treated as an adult.

    The concept behind this legislation may seem very familiar to many legislators and youth advocates. Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, has proposed a similar change every session since 2005. However, this new proposal is a compromise compared to previous bills, in that violent reoffenders would remain adult court.

    Rep. Bies said that he strongly supports this legislation and “will fight to get it through the system.”

    Legislators who opposed previous versions of the bill – ones that attempted to remove all juveniles, violent and not from adult court – seem to be more receptive to this version.  Under this proposal, more than 30 violent crimes would prompt a 17-year-old to be waived into adult court. A list of violent crimes under s. 939.632 (1) (e) 1 or 2 accompanies the bill.

    The Wisconsin Second Chance Alliance, a workgroup that includes the State Bar, asserts that this legislation will help to lower recidivism rates and provide young people with a chance to succeed.

    State Bar President Patrick J. Fiedler, whose vast experience in the criminal justice system as a judge and prosecutor as well as former Secretary of the Department of Corrections, said that this bill is an opportunity for Wisconsin to be smart on crime.

    “The vast majority of arrests of 17-year-olds are for relatively minor, non-violent offenses, and this bill provides a way to hold these youth accountable for their actions while giving them a second chance to grow into responsible adults,” Fiedler said.

    He pointed out that an adult criminal record can haunt a young person for life. And a remaining charge on a young person’s record can impede his or her chances of graduating from high school, attaining higher education and finding gainful employment.

    Recent U.S. Supreme Court language and findings have also reinforced the notion that the criminal justice system should not treat youth under 18 the same as adults. 

    “It's time for Wisconsin to look forward and return non-violent 17-year-olds to juvenile court and truly give them a second chance,” Fiedler said.

    Katie StenzKatie Stenz is the public affairs coordinator with the State Bar of Wisconsin. She can be reached at, or by phone at (608) 250-6145.

    Much of Wisconsin’s concern over juvenile offenders stems from a peak in violent juvenile crime that occurred in the early 90’s. At that time, several states made changes to their juvenile laws, but Wisconsin was the only state to place an entire group of youth in the adult system.

    Research compiled by the Wisconsin Second Chance Alliance shows that even though juvenile arrests peaked in Wisconsin in 1994, they have steadily declined since the enactment of the law. Today, only 2 percent of 17-year-olds are arrested for violent crimes.

    Wisconsin is one of 11 states that treat 17-year-olds in the adult system. The other states are Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Texas.

    “The number of kids who are referred to the criminal justice system will decrease in the future, and we will have a better chance of making good kids out of these kids who made one mistake,” said Rep. Kessler.

    It is anticipated that the bill will be introduced and scheduled for a public hearing sometime over the next few weeks.

    Prominent Groups and Individuals Show Their Support

    Since its inception, several groups have come out in support of the bill, including the conservative Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is backed by political heavyweights Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. 

    Members of the Second Chance Alliance – some of whom have been working on this proposal in one way or another for nearly a decade – include the State Bar of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, the State Public Defender, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, Disability Rights Wisconsin, WISDOM, Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Wisconsin Association of Family and Children’s Agencies, Wisconsin Family Ties, A Helping Heart, and the National Association of Social Workers—WI Chapter.

    About the Bill

    For more information about this legislation please review the following items:

    Contact Your Legislator

    State Bar members are encouraged to contact their state legislators and urge them to co-sponsor and support the Second Chance Bill (LRB 1065/2). This is an opportunity to make positive change in Wisconsin and give nonviolent 17-year-olds a second chance.  You can find contact information for your state legislators at the Wisconsin Legislature’s website or by calling the Legislative Hotline at 800-362-9472.


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