Banning life sentences without parole for juveniles in Wisconsin

By: - December 6, 2021 11:55 am
Lincoln Hills detention facility

Lincoln Hills, a detention facility the state has ordered closed by 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections)

Reps. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville),  John Spiros (R-Marshfield), David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) have  introduced legislation to end life without parole sentences for juveniles in Wisconsin. The bipartisan legislation (LRB-4927), was introduced earlier  as lawmakers continue to grapple with the future of juvenile justice in our state.

If passed, the legislation would ban Wisconsin courts from imposing life sentences without the possibility of release for juvenile offenders. A set of mitigating factors would also be established which the courts must consider when sentencing a juvenile, and the law would retroactively apply when considering adjusting the sentences of currently incarcerated youth.

Under the bill, juveniles would have the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed after serving 20 years for homicide or certain sexual offenses. Sentences for all other offenses could be reviewed after 15 years. At that time, the court would be able to reduce or modify a juvenile’s sentence, and if those modifications are denied, the juvenile could petition to have their sentence reviewed after three years.

“Victims of crime and their communities deserve justice, especially in situations where there has been a tragic loss of life,” said Johnson. “But a child is also a terrible thing to waste, and there is no chance for redemption for a minor who has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. I am proud to join with a bipartisan group of legislators to co-author this bill to prohibit juvenile life without parole. Ending this unforgiving and wasteful sentencing practice will better align our criminal justice system with the goals of rehabilitation and redemption of offenders and, ultimately, make it more just in the eyes of the community.”

She continued, “Across the country, 25 states across the political spectrum and the District of Columbia have already banned this practice, and even the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that these sentences run afoul of the Eighth  Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment’ clause. And while we recognize that the crimes at the heart of these sentences are undoubtedly serious, we must also recognize that they were committed by children whose brains were not yet fully developed, and no child is beyond redemption.”

Bowen added that, “after years of conversations with criminal justice advocates, with individuals serving juvenile life without parole sentences themselves, and with the families of victims, it is more clear than ever to me that we must recognize that children — even those who have committed serious crimes — must have the opportunity to prove they have been rehabilitated after serving a certain amount of years in prison, with the ability to rejoin society as productive and reformed members.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award.