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Advocate: Wisconsin Needs Alternatives to Putting Kids in Jail

PHOTO: A juvenile justice advocate says locking kids up is not an effective way to deal with kids who have problems, and more humane and effective responses to delinquency need to be developed.Photo credit: New Jersey Parents Caucus.
PHOTO: A juvenile justice advocate says locking kids up is not an effective way to deal with kids who have problems, and more humane and effective responses to delinquency need to be developed.
Photo credit: New Jersey Parents Caucus.
December 10, 2014

MADISON, Wis. - The United States leads the industrialized world in the rate at which it puts young people in prison, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

About 1,000 juveniles now are in jail in Wisconsin. Jim Moeser, deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, said there are viable alternatives to locking kids up.

"Additional supervision programs that can be created at the local level," he said. "There are programs that work with kids who have mental health issues, and wraparound-style programs, coordinated service teams - really trying to address a lot of the underlying issues and work with the family to keep the youth in the community as much as possible."

The vast majority of kids locked up in the United States, according to the report, are being held for nonviolent offenses. Even though fewer kids are locked up now compared with a decade ago, Moeser said, the juvenile crime rate continues to fall.

Since 1996, Wisconsin law has required that 17-year-olds automatically be sent to adult court, a fact of which Moeser says a lot of people, including a lot of state legislators, are not aware.

"It's a surprising number of people who think that judges still have some discretion in this stuff, and they don't," he said. "It's '17-year-old - you're an adult' and you can't be sent back to juvenile court."

Moeser said the old "law and order, lock 'em up" approach to juvenile justice has never worked. He said more humane and effective responses to delinquency need to be developed. A conviction in adult court can stay with a 17-year-old for a long time, and affect their ability to get a job and obtain housing. Moeser says they don't get the same level of services in the adult system as they can get in the juvenile system to get them back on track.

"We just think all kids really should have a second chance," he said. "The juvenile system, I think, just does a much better job identifying the underlying issues and addressing them."

The report and additional information are online at aecf.org.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI