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Youth mentoring program launched to address teen crime, stolen car surge

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A collection of community organizations joined Dane County Executive Joe Parisi Thursday to launch a program that seeks to stop Madison's dramatic increase in stolen cars.

The "Opportunity Youth Cross Sector Coalition" builds on a pilot program from the summer of 2019. The initiative seeks to demonstrate the power of a strong role model. The program, funded with $270,000 from the United Way of Dane County and $100,000 from Dane County's 2020 budget, will match 49 juvenile offenders or at-risk teens with an adult mentor who overcame adversity in their teenage years.

"This is an opportunity for us to intervene, provide mentorship, provide support so they stop the behavior and re-engage them in a different way of life," said Madison School Board President Gloria Reyes.

Teen are the main drivers behind a startling increase in stolen car reports. According to a review of Madison Police records, that number more that doubled between 2014 and 2018:

  • 2014 - 235
  • 2015 - 262
  • 2016 - 281
  • 2017 - 449
  • 2018 - 574
  • 2019 - 452 (data only available through September)

Examining the arrests in those cases, the amount of juveniles arrested for stealing cars increased from 32 in 2016 to 75 in 2018. According to a release from Parisi's office, juveniles accounted for 90 of the 133 stolen car cases the county courts handled in 2018. The release said 27 teens accounted for 90 of those cases.

The mentoring program launched during the same week Republicans in the state legislature passed bills that increase penalties for stolen cars and reckless driving, as well as what offenses can land juveniles in lockup.

"As the debate goes forward on criminal justice reform, and what that should look like, we don't want it to be only focused on criminal rights and the cost of incarceration," said State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R - New Berlin). "We think it's essential we talk about victims and protecting our neighborhoods."

Parisi said the coalition aims to prove that through mentoring, prevention is more worthy of investment than punishment.

"When someone is released from juvenile detention or jail or prison, if they're gonna move next door to me, I want it to be a person who has had an investment made in them so they can invest in their future," Parisi said.

The pilot program from last summer matched seven juvenile offenders with mentors. Funding for the full launch of the program is enough for two years. Coalition members said the United Way will take the lead on pairing teens with mentors. A screening committee will review referrals for teens, which can come the courts, schools, and social workers among others.

The funding will cover staff salaries, as well as stipends for the teens and their families.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers campaigned on reducing Wisconsin's prison population and is expected to veto the "tough-on-crime" bill package Republicans in the legislature passed this session.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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