By Chris Rickert The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — Madison Police Chief Mike Koval was so frustrated with how the Dane County juvenile justice system has been handling a small group of repeat juvenile offenders that in a provocative blog post last week he referred to the system with “justice” in quotes.

But even he subscribes to the prevailing wisdom among Dane County’s leaders that children who commit crimes are as much victims as victimizers, and that providing them with services to address mental health, past trauma and family stability will not only help them, but go a long way toward a safer Madison.

What the police, policymakers and juvenile court officials are less eager to say is where, exactly, the line should be drawn between keeping the community safe and helping a juvenile offender — or more bluntly, between keeping a child detained and releasing that child back into the community with services and supervision that may or may not keep him from committing more crimes.

Data show arrests in Madison of both juveniles and adults have been on the decline or flat for years. But police, judges and others say a group of 30 or so repeat offenders is responsible for much of the recent increase in car thefts and other crimes by juveniles.

According to case information pulled from the state’s online court records system by juvenile courts officials and relayed to Madison police, there have been 133 cases of juveniles operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent — i.e., car theft — between Jan. 1 and Oct. 11, and 27 juveniles were implicated in 90 of those cases. Those implicated include drivers and passengers.

In July, the Madison Police Department compiled a list of its top 32 repeat juvenile offenders and made contact with the top 10 and their families, according to department spokesman Joel DeSpain, in an attempt to get the children to change their ways.

“They’ve not had much success, obviously, with some of them,” he said.

In fact, he said the juvenile with the second-most counts on that list, or 13, was one of five juveniles and one 17-year-old arrested outside Paoli and Verona early Thursday morning after leading police from multiple agencies on a chase of vehicles the juveniles allegedly stole from the town of Verona and the city of Madison.

The 17-year-old, Ramogi O. Carr, of Madison, was also on the list of 32. Online court records show he’s been charged in adult court with three felonies, two misdemeanors and two traffic violations since June of this year, when he turned 17. The felonies and misdemeanors relate to car theft or bail jumping.

In the Thursday case, Carr has been charged with car theft, resisting arrest and bail jumping.

Under current state law and policy set by the county’s Juvenile Reception Center — where just-arrested juveniles can be screened for temporary detention — there are 20 offenses for which juveniles must be detained on what is called a “presumptive hold.” They include homicide, armed burglary, discharging a firearm and car theft.

Juvenile court administrator John Bauman said exceptions can be made, but they are very rare, and usually involve children arrested for sexual abuse who have already been moved to a different home where they can be supervised and don’t have access to victims or potential victims.

Juveniles put on presumptive hold in Dane County currently go before a juvenile court commissioner the next business day, and later before a circuit judge handling juvenile cases.

Both rely on a 648-word section of the state’s juvenile justice code that sets out the criteria under which juveniles can be kept in custody: When there’s probable cause to believe they committed a crime and pose a “substantial risk” of harming another person or running away, they’ve run away from custody elsewhere, they’ve been judged delinquent and run away, they need to be protected from others, or when they are likely to be subject to charges in adult court.

Least restrictive setting

But within that framework, there “aren’t set guidelines” for court commissioners and judges, Bauman said, and the decision whether to release a child “depends on all of the information they can gather” — including the specific needs of the child, the availability of placement options, what the assigned social worker thinks and what attorneys for the prosecution and the defense think.

State statutes “give a presumption of least restrictive setting for both pre-adjudication and disposition,” according to Kenneth Streit, a clinical professor of law emeritus and expert in juvenile justice at the University of Wisconsin Law School — meaning both before the child has been found guilty of a crime and after guilt has been determined.

Presiding county juvenile judge Shelley Gaylord declined to comment specifically on how she and the three other county judges currently handling juvenile cases arrive at custody decisions, and she referred to a statement released by the four a week ago in response to Koval’s blog.

In it, they defend their efforts to keep the community safe and take victims into account, and claim the “overwhelming majority (of accused youth) are held in detention awaiting a first hearing” and “we are holding youth longer than historically has been done.”

Dane County’s four juvenile court commissioners did not respond to a request for comment.

Bauman said that last year, youth in detention with the county were held an average of seven days, and a “point in time” review of length of stay a couple weeks ago found that the average stay was 18 days.

He also said the “number of youth in detention is also significantly higher than in the past.”

According to figures he provided, the county averaged a little more than seven youth per day in detention last year, but last month that number was 18.

Koval: ‘Trust the judge’

Koval said he’d like to see strong-armed robberies, theft of firearms, muggings, eluding police in a vehicle chase, battery to a police officer, and resisting or obstructing a police officer who ends up injured added to the list of offenses that automatically subject juveniles to presumptive holds.

But he declined to be more specific when it came to deciding which criteria should be considered in later custody decisions.

“I would not want to create some sort of a matrix in determining the cookie-cutter basis for holding,” he said. “I would rather trust the judge in making decisions based upon the totality of the circumstances.”

Mayor Paul Soglin said he’s “not the person to make that judgment” on how many or what types of crimes a juvenile has to be arrested on before he or she is ineligible for release.

But he did say that if a child has stolen three or four cars and is still free, “what’s out there now clearly doesn’t work.”

In a letter Tuesday, he invited seven local leaders from the nonprofit, education, social services and criminal justice fields to join him in coming up with a new mandatory program judges could use to provide troubled youth with mental health care, case management, family support and other services.

In response, some in the county social services and courts systems said there are already programs to address those needs, as well as people meeting on how to reduce repeat juvenile crime.

Streit said “Koval is sort of in a tough position,” and can’t just tell residents to “take your cars to Minnesota” while those in the court system figure out what to do about juvenile car thefts.

“This is a new phenomenon in Madison,” Streit said about the presence of a small group of repeat juvenile offenders. “It’s not a new phenomenon in Milwaukee.”

“We’re not after the ones who make one or two mistakes,” said Madison Ald. Paul Skidmore, who has sought to hire more police and draw attention to juvenile crime in his Far West Side 9th District. “When you got someone pointing a gun at you, you’re not going to call a social worker.”

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