A bipartisan bill would give those convicted of a crime and sentenced to decades in prison when they were younger than 18 an opportunity to apply for early release after 15 to 20 years. It also would end “life without parole” sentences for minors and bring Wisconsin in line with federal constitutional law. The bill has been introduced in previous sessions, but even without any registered opposition it has failed to advance. This week it will finally get its first public hearing after in previous sessions failing to advance out of committee.
Here are some details on the proposal:
- How would the law work? It creates a formal procedure for an incarcerated minor offender to petition the sentencing court for early release after 15 years in prison. If the person was convicted of a felony homicide or sexual assault of a child, the offender would have to wait 20 years. It would also end mandatory life-without-parole sentences for those under 18.
- How many incarcerated people could this potentially affect? According to the most recent estimate from the state Department of Corrections, as of 2019 there were 430 inmates who would be eligible to petition for early release. More than half of them had already served at least 14 years. That’s according to a 2020 fiscal note for a previous version of the bill that failed to pass the Senate. DOC has not provided more recent figures since. One example would be David Reese, who was convicted of robbery and rape at the age of 14. He’s been in prison since 1998 and not eligible for parole for another 23 years.
- Why watch? There are nationwide campaigns to end long sentences for people convicted as minors citing a growing body of scientific evidence that the human brain is not fully developed in adolescents, raising questions of legal culpability among teens in a state where 17-year-olds are automatically tried as adults.The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that sentencing minors to life in prison without parole was unconstitutional as it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” yet in Wisconsin that option remains on the books.
- Yea: The bill’s Assembly Republican sponsor notes that his bill — as written — wouldn’t result in any automatic releases but would rather create a mechanism to apply for early release. “The victim’s families have to be involved,” Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, said. “I mean, it’s a long, tedious process to even get to the point where you would ever be released.”
- Nay: There has been no formal opposition to the bill, which has both Democratic and Republican support. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers hasn’t stated a position on the bill.
State of play: Previous incarnations have failed to advance to the governor’s desk. Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, has been generally supportive of the bill in the past, his chief of staff Scott Kelly said. But Kelly added it’s unclear how many incarcerated people the proposal would affect. “I think it died last time for lack of time/end of session,” he said. The Assembly Committee on Judiciary has scheduled a hearing for Thursday at 11 a.m in the Capitol North Hearing Room.
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