MADISON -- Non-violent 17-year-old offenders in Wisconsin would no longer be treated as adults in the justice system under a bipartisan proposal introduced Thursday in the Legislature.
The bill would reverse a 1996 law that required all 17-year-olds, regardless of the offense, to be treated as adults in response to calls to get tough on crime, especially violent offenses by juveniles.
The proposal would not affect those charged with violent crimes such as homicide, rape or battery. It also wouldn't affect repeat offenders. Bill backers say about 2,000 17-year-olds would be placed back into the juvenile system if the law were changed.
Various groups support the change, including the State Bar of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference and the state public defender. However, Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen came out against the bill, saying district attorneys have discretion in what they charge, judges have discretion in how they sentence offenders, and there are often diversion programs available for non-violent offenders.
"We're not aware of any issues that suggest that discretion is not being appropriately exercised," said his spokesman Dana Brueck in an email.
While judges have some discretion with 17-year-olds in the adult justice system, they have even more options in juvenile court, said Patrick Fiedler, a former adult and juvenile court judge who is now the president of the Bar Association.
Fiedler joined other supporters of the measure at a Capitol news conference. Fiedler said taking non-violent, first-time 17-year-old offenders out of the adult system gives them a second chance at a bright future, keeps the public safe and reduces chances they will commit another crime. Fiedler said it didn't make sense to treat 17-year-olds as juveniles in every other circumstance except when they commit a crime.