A Second Chance for Wisconsin Youngsters

The age at which a citizen should be treated as an adult is one that comes up in many contexts, from drinking alcohol to voting. A 17 year-old, of course, can neither legally consume alcohol or vote.

In most states, the default rule is that 17 year-olds are processed in the juvenile justice system, which typically focuses more on rehabilitation, works closely with schools and child welfare agencies, has lower probation caseloads, and of course places youths in facilities where they do not share cells with hardened adult career criminals. Also, juvenile records except in the most serious cases are usually sealed when a youth becomes an adult unless they have continued to engage in criminal activity.

Wisconsin is one state where all 17 year-olds charged with a crime automatically enter the adult criminal justice system, even if it stealing a candy bar or smoking pot. However, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is unveiling legislation that would change that. Under this proposal, 17 year-olds charged with a first-time, nonviolent offense would be processed through the juvenile justice system while other 17 year-olds would continue to be charged as adults.

The primary reason to keep more youngsters in the juvenile system is that it is more effective in reducing recidivism, leading to greater public safety. A Florida study considered 475 pairs of juveniles in Florida, matched for age, gender, race, offense history, offense severity, and other factors, with one of each pair transferred to criminal courts while the other was retained in juvenile courts. In 29 percent of pairs, only the transferred juvenile re-offended, while for less than 15 percent of pairs did only the retained juvenile re-offend. After age 18, 50 percent of those transferred to criminal courts re-offended while 35 percent of those adjudicated by a juvenile court re-offended. And in those cases where both members of a matched pair re-offended, the transferred juvenile was more likely to have committed a more serious felony. Studies in other states have found similar results.

There are also other important factors. Those 17 year-olds who commit a first-time, nonviolent offense will be better able find employment and housing later in life if they are not saddled with a permanent adult criminal record. Perhaps the most overlooked factor in the discussion, however, if the integrity of the family. Few parents would not want to know if their 17 year-old son or daughter is arrested and placed in jail. Yet, when these teens are processed in the adult system, they can be arrested, jailed, and released without notice to a parent or guardian. This is especially problematic given that 17 year-olds are covered by the Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law, meaning they are hopefully in school being supported by their parents.

Given these considerations, this is an important issue for Wisconsin policymakers to address. The proposal in Wisconsin to redirect nonvi nt, first-time 17 year-old offenders into the juvenile justice system is sponsored by Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay), Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), Senator Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), and Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood). The bill is expected to be heard in early October.


Holder Announcement Follows String of Conservative Criminal Justice Reforms

Texas and Other States have Reduced Crime AND Criminal Justice Spending

Austin, TX—In response to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement on corrections reform, the conservative criminal justice reform movement Right on Crime, led by the nation’s leading conservatives, highlighted several examples where reform has been underway for years in the states producing results that have improved public safety, reduced criminal justice spending, and empowered victims.

“It’s good to see the Administration following the lead of conservative states such as Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia that have proven it’s possible to reduce crime while also reducing criminal justice spending,” said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) on behalf of Right on Crime. A project of TPPF, Right on Crime is supported by leading conservatives such as Newt Gingrich, Richard Viguerie, David Keene, Grover Norquist, J.C. Watts, Tony Perkins, among many others.

“What’s most important in the proposal is that it puts more control in the hands of local and state officials to determine sentencing.  One size does not fit all crimes and a mandate from the federal government is not applicable to every case or situation. As conservatives who believe in limited government, we know that the federal government has too often overreached on criminal justice and that most criminal activity is best handled at the state and local level

“Over the years, political leaders have failed to hold the criminal justice system accountable for its alarming increase in spending and lack of results. The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion per year, up from $11 billion in the mid-1980s.  Over the last thirty years, corrections has been the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid.

Texas took the lead on this effort in 2007, saving a projected $2 billion of taxpayer money by implementing conservative criminal justice reforms. Since then, the Texas Legislature has been able to authorize the closure of three prisons, and the state crime rate is at its lowest point since 1968. Conservative governors in other states such as Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota have followed Texas’s lead by signing new laws that right-size corrections spending and break the cycle of crime.

Right On Crime is a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in partnership with Prison Fellowship Ministries. The Texas Public Policy Foundation is research institute in Austin, TX committed to limited government, free markets, private property rights, individual liberty and personal responsibility.



California Considers Parole Petitions for Lifers Tried as Juveniles

A bill currently sitting on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk would permit judicial reconsideration of juveniles previously sentenced to life without parole.

Senate Bill 9, passed by the California Senate and Assembly this summer, would allow an inmate who was tried as a juvenile, and currently serving a sentence of life without parole, to ask for judicial review of his or her time served after 15 years. The judge would need to find evidence of remorse as well as successful efforts toward rehabilitation. If the inmate exhibits both, the sentence could be reduced to 25 years to life—essentially permitting the option of parole.

This proposal would wisely not require the automatic release of any youths sentenced to life without parole, but it would at least provide judges and parole board members the discretion to review cases after 15 years to make a decision based on the evidence as to whether continued incarceration is necessary for public safety.

Earlier this summer, the United States Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be mandatorily sentenced to life without parole; instead, the judge must consider the particulars of each case and each juvenile. The most conservative judges on the Court dissented, not because they viewed juvenile life without parole as a good policy, but because they took the very legitimate originalist and textualist position that those policies not clearly understood to be prohibited at the time the Constitution was created should not now be subject to judicial declarations that they have come to amount to cruel and unusual punishment based on changing societal mores.

However, regardless of one’s constitutional theory, the decision is now the law of the land and must be followed. Even if California’s current policy was constitutionally permissible, it fails to recognize the reality that some who commit even heinous crimes as juveniles have the capacity for change and rehabilitation. Both moral and fiscal considerations are at play when a rehabilitated convict serves a life without parole sentence. Noted conservative commentator Cal Thomas authored a piece that eloquently explained why conservatives should take an approach to this issue that is rightfully tough on youths who commit serious crimes, but still leaves the door open for rehabilitation and redemption that in some cases can be achieved over time.

Now, Governor Brown has an opportunity to both prioritize prison space for those that remain a danger to public safety and embrace the possibility that human beings, especially those who make terrible mistakes as a minor, can eventually be redeemed in some cases.


Governor Chris Christie Answers Crime Victims’ Pleas

It is clear that Mitt Romney has a friend in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but so do those who have been victims of crime. On August 8, Gov. Christie signed groundbreaking legislation he championed that empowers New Jersey residents who have been victims of crime.

This legislation gives victims access to more information from prosecutors, assists victims of violent crime with medical expenses out of funds paid by offenders, and entitles victims to appear in court for all proceedings. Perhaps most importantly, the new law requires a judge to consider a victim’s statement before accepting a plea bargain. Moreover, the law gives victims a tool to enforce these protections, as it gives them legal standing to file motions to ensure that their interests are recognized.

The vast majority of criminal cases in the modern criminal justice system are resolved through plea bargaining. In most states, victims do not have a right to be informed about plea bargaining proceedings or provide input to the court concerning their opinion of the plea deal. This is particularly important, since research has shown victims may have somewhat different priorities than the prosecution, with restitution being the number one goal of victims in property crime cases.

This is not the first time Gov. Christie has provided strong leadership on criminal justice reform. In late July, as we documented on Right on Crime, he signed legislation that redirects low-level drug possession offenders to drug courts, which are proven to reduce recidivism. This measure will save taxpayers’ dollars and better prioritize prison space for violent and dangerous offenders.

Few doubt Gov. Christie’s toughness, but he is not just tough, he is also smart, when it comes to crime. Thanks to his leadership, there is now more hope for both victims of crime and those seeking to overcome a drug habit.


Right On Crime Statement on the End of the Gibson Guitar Case

Yesterday, I issued the following statement upon the conclusion of the year-long drama in which the Department of Justice used the Lacey Act to fine Gibson Guitar $350,000 for importing ebony from Madagascar that was legally harvested, but shipped unfinished:

“The Lacey Act was originally crafted to protect endangered plant and animal species from being illicitly harvested, but it has devolved into an enforcement vehicle that fails to separate legal acts that boost our free-market economy from illicit criminal conduct.  The Gibson Guitar investigation has highlighted the urgent and serious need to reform the Lacey Act.  Such reforms should include requirements for the prosecution to provide proof the defendant acted intentionally and assurance that any penalties it inflicts are civil, not criminal, unless there is direct physical or economic harm to humans.

“Gibson Guitar’s case has helped to bring public attention to the dangers of overcriminalization, but the legendary guitar manufacturer is far from the only victim.  There are countless other cases that also raise troubling questions concerning the over 4,500 federal criminal laws and the failure to require proof of intent before an individual or business can be convicted.  Right on Crime is committed to documenting examples of overcriminalization and working with policymakers to advance much-needed reforms.”

On August 24, 2011, Gibson Guitar factories were raided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agency ordered workers to go home and confiscated over 100 guitars and boxes of raw materials.

The federal government justified the raid under the Lacey Act-a law originally intended to curb the poaching of endangered species that allows the United States to interpret and enforce criminal laws of other countries.

Gibson imports wood to create fingerboards for their guitars. The wood seized during the raid was harvested legally and was from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier.  Moreover, U.S. Customs allowed the shipment to pass through America’s border to Gibson’s factory.

For more information from Right on Crime, please click here.