Media Coverage is Lacking on Bill Switching Some 17-Year-Old Offenders to Juvenile System

Policymakers and members of the media should ask more questions before accepting county officials’ estimates for the price tag of the changes

December 22, 2015

By Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate

[Madison, Wisc…] A recent Journal Times article covers a bill currently circulating in the Wisconsin Legislature. Unfortunately for the readers of that publication, by failing to question county officials’ cost estimates, the article fails to fully examine the problem.

The bill in question would move first-time nonviolent 17-year-old offenders off the adult system and into the juvenile justice system. It has more than 70 bipartisan cosponsors, some of whom have introduced similar versions of the bill in the past. A committee hearing has been forthcoming for months, and even though more than half of the legislature’s sitting members have their name on the bill, it has yet to get a public hearing.

Why? More often than not, in politics, the answer for why a bill doesn’t move forward can simply be that “it’s complicated.” We have grown sadly accustomed to this. But we shouldn’t grow complacent: let’s call out statements that fail to tell the whole truth.

The State of Wisconsin pays for adult correctional facilities. The state sends approximately $90 million to the counties to help pay for the juvenile justice system, the rest of which is covered by county property tax levies. Should this change happen, the counties would pay for the estimated 3,600 or so 17-year-olds who would in the future be processed through the juvenile system. In a recent Journal Times article, Racine County officials estimate that their costs would reach as high as $1.2 million. Unfortunately, the newspaper failed to ask how they arrived at that number.

Framed this way, the reader feels sympathetic for the poor county officials who are surely already wringing their bone-dry budgets.

What the reader doesn’t learn is the fact that the number of juvenile arrests fell by more than half from 2006 to 2014 while the amount of youth aid funding that counties received rose by more than $2 million overall. In short, the amount of money that counties receive per juvenile arrest has increased 47 percent since 2009.

And yet Racine County officials demand $1.2 million for the change.

The counties have successfully framed their sympathetic argument by constantly saying they agree with the policy change, if only they could afford it. It makes us, the public, feel bad for them. “They would do the right thing,” we think, “if only they could afford it.”

The fact of the matter is that the state has increased funding to counties for this very purpose. The WCA position that counties simply have no capacity to absorb any additional costs is not supported by data provided by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

While we debate the immediate costs, it’s also important to note that the policy change is likely to have long-term savings for taxpayers. Handling youth in juvenile court reduces reoffending by 34 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The counties have successfully set themselves up as the poor players who will suffer from an unfunded state mandate. With local coverage, such as Racine’s, failing to question county officials’ estimates, we’re letting them get away with it.

Editor’s Note: The MacIver Institute asked the Journal Times for an opportunity to directly respond to the article referenced here, but did not receive a response.