Privacy Rights and Wrongs in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, vetoed a bill yesterday that would have stripped privacy rights from juveniles who come into contact with the law. As this brief AP report explains, the proposed measure would have made juvenile court records available to law enforcement officers, judges and district attorneys, as well as employees in the state Department of Health and Family Services, county human services departments and licensed child welfare agencies–all of whom must currently request court permission before gaining access to such records.

It’s interesting to compare Doyle’s recent decision in favor of privacy rights for juveniles with one he made against them in May 2005, when he expanded the authority of the state’s law enforcement officers to release information on juvenile sex offenders. The so-called “Amie’s Law”–named after Amie Zyla, who was assaulted at age 8 by a 14-year-old friend of the family–denied juvenile sex offenders exemption from community notification and granted police chiefs and sheriffs the ability to disseminate information about those considered likely to reoffend.

When this bill was being debated in Wisconsin, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Laurel Walker wrote a sensitive column that sums up my concerns on the issue:

No doubt some youngsters–perhaps having been sexually abused themselves at very young ages–become the offenders early on. Some will never respond to treatment or punishment. The public must be warned when courts set them free.

But I have to believe that the reason we have a juvenile justice system separate from adult court is because there must be hope through treatment for children. The kinds of sexual offenses committed by children, and the children’s motivation, aren’t all the same.

The State Bar Association of Wisconsin’s children and law section opposes the black-and-white approach now on the table and suggests that judges, with expert help, decide on a case-by-case basis when the public must be warned.

I’m glad Doyle vetoed the bill yesterday. His instinct, I think, is correct. It’s too bad he didn’t follow the same instinct a few years back when considering Amie’s Law, but perhaps yesterday’s veto signals a shift in his thinking on the matter. Hopefully, he’ll come around to the view that, regardless of the category of crime, as Walker wrote, “not every child offender deserves to be on a poster.”

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