Evers Proposing Sweeping Changes To Juvenile Justice System

Offenders who are 17 years old wouldn’t be automatically treated as adults in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system under a proposal by Gov. Tony Evers.

That is one piece of Evers’ proposed state budget, which includes an overhaul to the state’s criminal justice system that has several changes to how youth are sentenced and receive treatment.

“Our justice system has put a strain on our state — both in terms of costs for corrections and lack of investment in rehabilitation, treatment, and alternatives to incarceration,” Evers said during his budget address Tuesday. “We can’t keep throwing taxpayer dollars into a system that doesn’t help our state or our people thrive.”

The budget includes closing the long-troubled youth prisons Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Evers said he wants the prisons, which have a documented history of abuse, closed once there is the “establishment of suitable replacement facilities.” A timeline hasn’t been set.

In 2018, lawmakers and former Gov. Scott Walker first set a deadline to close the state-run prisons by July 2021. The plan was to replace them with a state prison for Wisconsin’s most serious youth offenders, and open county-run facilities for other incarcerated children, so they could be closer to home.

Dane, Milwaukee, Brown and Racine counties each expressed interest in operating a community-based facility. But there was never enough funding to get these programs off the ground and all the counties except Racine have pulled their applications.

Elimination Of Serious Juvenile Offender Program

Evers’ budget includes a “multifaceted” approach to the youth prison crisis in the state. It also repeals the Serious Juvenile Offender (SJO) program, which was created in the 1990s for youth convicted of the most serious crimes. 

According to the governor’s office, the SJO model incarcerates youth for longer periods of time and results in worse outcomes, including an increased likelihood of adult incarceration and behavioral health issues.

Evers is proposing replacing the 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.

Mark Mertens is an administrator for the Division of Youth and Family Services in Milwaukee County and a member of the national Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice (YCLJ) organization. He said Evers’ proposals align very closely with YCLJ’s mission to replace youth prisons with more therapeutic and trauma-informed settings. 

“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,” Mertens said. “I am also encouraged by the governor’s proposal for more individualized sentencing and services to assist young people aged 18 to 25 to receive more developmentally appropriate and effective treatment within the justice system.  This is supported by the science of adolescent brain development, and represents the best way forward in transforming our justice system.”

But state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, a former police officer who chairs the state Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, said eliminating the SJO program is irresponsible.

“You just can’t lower criminal penalties across the board willy-nilly,” Wanggaard said. “What are you going to do with these kids? These young people who are the most violent offenders? I mean the SJOs aren’t there because they got caught with 1 gram of marijuana. They’re murders, carjackers; they’ve done violent crimes, and they need to be put someplace they need to be secured.”

Evers’ proposal also includes about $1 million to create a 30-bed Behavior Modification Housing Unit at the Racine Youth Offender Correctional Facility. The until would be an alternative to isolating youth from others, and instead provide them with more individualized attention. 

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Research has shown isolation can have negative effects on individuals as they return to the community, according to the governor’s office.

Governor Proposes Sentencing Changes

Evers is also calling for an end to 17-year-olds being placed in the adult criminal justice system — with the exception of juveniles who commit violent crimes such as homicide and rape.

“We are one of the only states in the nation that has not made this evidence-based change to make sure youth are treated as youth, and that needs to change now,” Evers said. “And right now there is no foundational training for how to interact with and engage with justice-involved kids.”

Wisconsin is one of three states that automatically treats 17-year-olds as adults in criminal cases.

The governor is 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.

Wanggaard questioned how Evers could be proposing this at the same time his administration wants to legalize marijuana, which Wanggaard called a gateway drug.

“We are in a fight for our life with drug addictions, and they want to introduce more drugs,” Waggaard said. “I don’t think they have connectivity of what they are proposing here.”

Plan Includes Other Initiatives

Evers said the justice system should be about accountability and opportunity for treatment and rehabilitation.

“We can keep our communities safe by holding violent offenders accountable, saving money and reforming our justice system all at the same time, because in the 21st century we can use science and evidence to help us make better decisions,” Evers said.

He is proposing several other justice reform initiatives including a $1.6 million program to treat individuals with opioid addiction and $15 million for treatment and diversion programs.

Also included:

  • Expansion of adult education or career/technical education programs within correctional facilities.
  • Improving and expanding the Earned Release Program that addresses criminal thinking and substance use disorders.
  • Limiting physical restraints on pregnant and postpartum people in correctional facilities and provide them certain testing, materials, services and information.
  • Establishing statutory procedures for processing and storing sexual assault kits.
  • Funding an additional eight circuit court branches, providing an additional 5.9 assistant district attorney positions, and providing an additional 10 public defender positions.

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. Born said many of these issues have already been talked about during bi-partisan legislative meetings. 

“To see this kind of complete reversal from the governor’s position on some of these things as recently in the last budget to what he is proposing now, is kind of shocking, especially in light of all the work that has been going on,” Born said. “I think I would have preferred to work through the bi-partisan committee process.”

Born said most of Evers’ justice proposals will likely be cut from the budget.