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Craig Mastantuono Feb. 28, 2021

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has included many criminal justice reform proposals in his biannual budget to the Wisconsin State Legislature, including criminal sentencing reform and legalization of marijuana. We will highlight several categories in coming days in Wisconsin Crime and Justice; the first group of proposals are those related to juvenile justice reform.* 

During the 1990’s, Wisconsin's lawmakers jumped in enthusiastically to the tough-on-crime hysteria permeating public debate on criminal justice. As part of their efforts, children were not spared, and they made draconian changes to the Wisconsin Children’s Code, including lowering the age for adult court jurisdiction from 18 to 17 and for delinquency jurisdiction from 12 to 10, increasing incarceration penalties, expanding prosecutor opportunities to waive kids into adult court, and even changing the title of Wisconsin's delinquency code from Children’s Code to Juvenile Justice Code, as if calling kids in trouble “children” would somehow be too humanizing. It has been a disaster for youth justice. In the years since, none of these changes to our law have been shown by outcome studies to have had a positive impact in reducing youth commision of crime or recidivism, and they have not made our communities safer. Other states avoided many of these harsh changes; Wisconsin is currently one of only three states in the country where 17 is the adult age for criminal prosecutions.

The current budgetary requests seek to bring our state into the 21st century in evidence and outcome-based adjustments to our juvenile laws. Among the Governor’s proposals:

  • Eliminating automatic original adult court jurisdiction for youth under the age of 18 and modifying the conditions under which a youth under the age of 18 may be waived into adult court.

  • Raising the age that a circuit court or municipal court exercises adult court jurisdiction on individuals from 17 years of age to 18 years of age.

  • Eliminating Type 1 juvenile correctional facilities (Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons) and authorizing DOC to operate secured residential care centers for children and youth. 

  • Prohibiting the use of restraints on anyone under the age of 18 when appearing before a juvenile or criminal court unless the court orders restraints after finding that their use is necessary.

  • Eliminating the use of detention for youth who have violated a court order for having committed a status offense.

  • Limiting the use of detention sanctions or holds to situations where there is a public safety risk.

  • Increasing the minimum age of delinquency from 10 years old to 12 years old to enable more age-appropriate, evidence-based youth justice programs.

  • Creating a sentence adjustment procedure for individuals who commit criminal offenses prior to the age of 18.

  • Creating certain mitigating factors that a court must consider when sentencing an individual who committed a criminal offense prior the age of 18.

Mastantuono & Coffee Law has long been outspoken in opposition to Wisconsin’s harsh Juvenile Justice Code, and we applaud and strongly support these current proposed changes.

*Full compilation of the Governor’s proposed changes outlined in Urban Milwaukee by Wisconsin Justice Initiative’s Gretchen Schuldt.