By Doug Hissom Special to Published Feb 05, 2010 at 5:35 AM

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State Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) is taking the bold initiative to fix some flaws in the criminal justice system, flaws that have particularly harmed young people.

He wants to change the state law back to having prosecutors only being able to charge 18-year-olds as adults for crimes and not 17-year-olds, which is the case now. The law was changed in 1996.

Youth advocates say the current law unfairly hurts youths' futures and doesn't give them much to look forward to.

They contend that a wealth of evidence has emerged indicating that the 1996 change was a mistake, and that it had a negative impact on community safety as well as the well-being of youth in Wisconsin's justice system.

A 2008 Legislative Audit Bureau report found that:

  • 17-year-olds in the adult system are in limbo with regard to receiving the treatment and services they need. They are too old to receive the services available to younger offenders through the juvenile corrections system, but too young to access adult services such as Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) treatment, vocational training, and diversion programs.
  • Recidivism is higher among 17-year-olds in the adult system than it is for either younger youth in the juvenile system or older teens in the adult system.
  • The vast majority of 17-year-olds in the adult system are there for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses like truancy and underage drinking. Kessler's plan would still allow prosecutors to try the adolescents accused of violent crimes as adults.

"The 1996 law requiring that we treat 17-year-olds as adults even for minor offenses was the misguided product of a ‘tough-on-crime' political climate," commented Wisconsin Council on Children and Families Deputy Director Jim Moeser, a nationally-recognized juvenile justice expert.

"There was never much evidence to support the policy. Well, the evidence is now in, and it points clearly toward undoing our previous mistake."

Milwaukee, Minnesota: Some Milwaukee pols think our fair city has an image problem, so much so, that somehow people think the Brew City is actually in Minnesota.

I can attest that while laying on a beach in Hyannis, Mass., two young ladies had no idea where Milwaukee was.

But they didn't know where Chicago was, either. For some reason, I don't think Miltown's new image makers will have any effect on that crew, though.

The Common Council's Community and Economic Development Committee passed a resolution creating a task force to assess the perceptions and image of greater Milwaukee and help to identify funding for ongoing branding in the future.

Ald. Terry Witkowski, the primary backer of the plan, says for years reports have shown that nationally people have mis-identified Milwaukee as being in Minnesota or identified Milwaukee as Minneapolis.

In the most recent study, many people failed to respond to questions about perception of Milwaukee and this is believed to be because they have no perception or knowledge of Milwaukee.

The task force will pick an agency to do the PR job. The task force is slated to report within the next year. It has 24 members, including the mayor, the Common Council president, representatives from General Mitchell International Airport, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the Milwaukee 7, VISIT Milwaukee and others.

Train plan railed on: One week after praising the fact that Wisconsin will get $823 million from the federal government to build high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison, Milwaukee Ald. Bob Bauman ripped the notion that the rail station in Madison would be at the airport there and not somewhere closer to downtown.

Bauman said the airport location is "a mistake" that must be corrected if the new service is going to succeed. He talked in terms of "the last mile" as being integral to any transit system, meaning that the station should be within a mile of downtown to make it more convenient for people to get to the action of the city.

The Dane County airport, for most, is out in the boonies.

"Where the last mile can be covered by a short walk, short taxi ride or a short trip on local transit, rail service will be successful. The success of the existing Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago is a perfect example of this principle," he said.

"This station location will diminish ridership on the line and will jeopardize the success of the service. Travelers whose final destination is downtown Madison, surrounding neighborhoods or the University of Wisconsin will simply continue to drive or take existing inter-city buses because the "last mile" must be covered by a long taxi ride or a transfer to local transit."

He said it would also diminish the chances the rail lines could be extended to the Twin Cities and the Fox River Valley.

A burning issue: Efforts to restore a Milwaukee fire station that was shut down because of budget constraints went down in flames this week. Alds. Donovan, Witkowiak, Zielinski and Davis wanted to dip into the city's bank account for $1,097,287 to restore a Riverwest fire house the council voted to close in November. A council committee didn't go along with the idea.

City Budget Director Mark Nicolini told aldermen that dipping into the savings account is usually done strictly for unforeseen emergencies and not general budget fixing. He also noted that the department has still maintained its six-minute response time average.

Joblessness run rampant: Job prospects are still bleak out there, reports the Center On Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).

Some sobering numbers:

Wisconsin lost 15,200 jobs between November and December last year. Following a leveling off between April and August, job loss has picked up speed recently, with nearly 40,000 jobs lost in the last four months.

Wisconsin's unemployment rate jumped to 8.7 percent in December, up 0.5 point from November and nearly twice its pre-recession level. Unemployment may continue to rise in months to come, warns COWS.

Wisconsin males continue to bear the brunt of job loss. There is "a substantial gender gap" in unemployment rates between women and men (7.2 percent for women and 9.5 percent for men in the last quarter of 2009).

Construction jobs are at the lowest levels since 1994 at 99,100.

Historic brew: A landmark former Schlitz tavern on the South Side is getting historic designation from the city. The tavern at the southwest corner of West Greenfield Avenue and South 25th Street was built in 1904 and is probably best known as the site of the former Benjamin Briggs restaurant and bar. City officials noted that the building is in a remarkable state of preservation. It's now known as Club Fiesta.

"The building is a fine example of period revival style applied to tavern building, something uncommon in Milwaukee. It expresses the importance given to Old World character in the decades of the 1920s and 1930s before modernism began to make inroads in design," notes a city analysis.

Ald. Donovan nominated the building for preservation status over concerns that its owner wants to paint the exterior.

"Milwaukee's breweries built hundreds of tavern buildings across the city, county and other communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way to distribute the ever increasing production from their plants. It was also a way to control the quality of the buildings and create an environment that had more respectability than the early notorious dens of iniquity," reads the city report.

"Saloons or taverns became the places where neighbors and workers came to socialize over drinks and where they could play cards, bowl and enjoy food. The Schlitz tavern shows the development of one such tavern as it evolved from a small local drinking establishment into a more destination business that also served food."

Money trail: Ald. Zielinski's campaign for lieutenant governor reports that it has $130,575 in cash on hand. It chides his other two opponents for having small change in their war chests, reporting that one has $16,735 and the other has $3,940.

"This underscores the strength and economic vision that Zielinski brings to the Democratic ticket," says a campaign statement.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Walworth County businessman Ben Collins, says his effort has raised $147,234.50 and has more than $142,000 in cash on hand.

Mensa candidate: The state Supreme Court upheld a Milwaukee Police detective's search of a cell phone after stopping Jermichael James Carroll for a traffic incident. The detective saw a picture of Carroll smoking a blunt on the phone and then answered the phone when it was ringing. The caller was looking to buy some cocaine from Carroll.

The detective also found a picture on the phone of Carroll holding a gun, which he's not allowed to do -- being a convicted felon and all.

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.