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Bill would allow 17-year-old criminal suspects to be charged as juveniles

MADISON, WI (WTAQ) - Seventeen-year-old criminal suspects would no longer be automatically charged as adults in Wisconsin, under a new bill in the state Legislature. 

State Bar president and former Madison judge Patrick Fiedler was among the bill's supporters who held a news conference Thursday.  

He said it would give first-time, non-violent 17-year-olds a chance at more treatment options in the juvenile justice system. Fiedler said it would also reduce repeat offenders, give non-violent youngsters a second chance, and still protect the public. 

Those who commit violent crimes like homicide or rape would still be charged as adults. So would repeat offenders.  

Supporters say around 2,000 17-year-old adult defendants would be moved back to the juvenile system. 

The state Public Defender's office and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference endorse the bill.  It also has bipartisan support from lawmakers such as Door County Assembly Republican Garey Bies, a former chief sheriff's deputy -- and Assembly Democrat Fred Kessler of Milwaukee, a former judge. 

Efforts to put 17-year-olds back into the juvenile system have failed in recent years. GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is open to reviewing it this time. 

Senate leaders and Governor Scott Walker are non-committal. Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen opposes the change, saying prosecutors already have discretion in charging teens -- and diversion programs are available for non-violent teen offenders. 

Only 10 other states automatically charge youngsters under 18 as adults. Wisconsin started doing it in the mid-1990's.