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Editorial Roundup: Wisconsin

1December 2021

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. November 23, 2021.

Editorial: Efforts to address homelessness are welcome

The Chippewa Valley isn’t the kind of place that usually comes to mind when people think about homelessness. But the issue is hardly confined to major cities.

Menomonie doesn’t fit the stereotypes. But the shelter serving the community is on track to provide a cumulative 9,000 nights of protection this year. That’s up more than 40 percent compared to 2020.

Eau Claire isn’t a massive urban area with people huddled in doorways. But a summer survey found 32 people living outside on a night marked by bad weather. And the summer began with the death of Marilyn Roeber, a homeless woman found on a bench downtown that often served as her bed.

Homelessness itself often doesn’t fit what people think it looks like. Someone who sleeps on friends’ couches or bounces from one relative’s home to another because they don’t have a place of their own is homeless. The person who spends a summer camping in a tent out of necessity rather than recreation is, too.

The reality of the situation is clear. Padraig Gallagher, the executive director of Stepping Stones in Menomonie, said there’s a waitlist for shelter services. “We have averaged 28 households on our waitlist in 2021,” he said, before adding that figure was up to 41 early this week, driven by the arrival of fall temperatures.

Officials in both Menomonie and Eau Claire have addressed it in recent months. Plans to expand the Sojourner House in Ottumwa have been mooted, though concerns remain about the idea. A new shelter in Menomonie has a target opening date of 2023-24.

Homelessness is a complex issue. The economy plays a role for some. The region lacks the amount of affordable housing it needs. Many people are only a bad break away from being unable to afford rent. For others, issues like mental health come to the forefront. A one-size approach won’t work because the issue itself lacks a single cause.

While few object to the fundamental concept of helping, there’s also an understandable concern about where and how efforts are made to shelter people, and what the effects on the immediate area may be. That’s why it’s a mistake to think that approval of any one change at such agencies eliminates the need for dialogue. Being a good neighbor needs to include ongoing efforts at communication and a willingness to engage in what can be difficult discussions.

As elusive as solutions are, it is encouraging to see that local communities and advocates remain committed to finding ways to help. They have also engaged skeptics. When neighbors complained, with clear justification, about the conduct of some of those who left Sojourner House each day, advocates from the facility made an effort to speak with them. They recognized the difference between those who object to the mere presence of a shelter and those who rightly complained about others using their yards as open air toilets. Those discussions led to some adjustments in the plans, including additional fencing and lighting.

It would be naïve to think the steps in Eau Claire or Menomonie will solve this issue on their own. Far larger communities have thrown far greater resources into the effort to care for those who don’t have a home. Those efforts have found varying levels of benefit, but none have eradicated homelessness.

Support for efforts to help those in need is very nearly universal. The majority of religions include a call for adherents to care for those who need help. Christian alms, tzedakah in Judaism and zakat in Islam all express the fundamental need to assist others. The impulse is a cornerstone of many humanistic philosophies that have nothing to do with faith as well.

The work will continue. It’s one of the societal challenges that will most likely never be entirely overcome. But an inability to finish such a task does not relieve us of the need to pursue success. If we can’t change the world for everyone, we can at least change it for some. And you never really know where that may lead.

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Kenosha News. November 29, 2021.

Editorial: Penalties should be stiffer for impaired driving on recreational vehicles

Several communities around southeastern Wisconsin are considering changing the law to allow ATVs drive on roads.

It’s a change for those communities that could have some benefits. But as more communities allow ATVs, the Legislature now needs to do its part and increase the consequences for impaired driving on recreational vehicles – ATVs, snowmobiles and boats.

Currently there is one set of rules for people driving vehicles. There is a second set of rules for those driving recreational vehicles.

The penalties are less severe for recreational vehicle drivers, and the offense does not go on a person’s driving record. The state also allows ATV riders to carry open alcoholic beverages while they are motoring about.

Police can issue a citation, but it is for operating a recreational vehicle while drunk, not criminal operating while under the influence.

Because the consequences are not the same, some who may not drive a vehicle impaired don’t think twice about doing it on an ATV, or snowmobile or boat.

To keep it simple, people shouldn’t be impaired when in the driver’s seat of any vehicle. People should be able to figure that out on their own, but sometimes you need the teeth of the law to remind people what is right and wrong.

State Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, who is co-sponsoring a bill on the issue, said the push for allowing ATVs into regular street traffic makes it all the more important to pass tougher drunken driving laws for those engaged in alternative modes of transportation.

“It definitely increases the urgency,” Subeck said.

The idea that some are taking their recreational vehicles instead of cars to avoid criminal charges is not just theoretical. It’s happening.

Here are just a few scenarios.

In the Juneau County community of Mauston, a 26-year-old man was cited in March after he was caught riding an ATV on a public street while intoxicated at about 10 p.m. Police reported that the suspect’s driver’s license also had been revoked.

Court records show that the man paid his $452 fine, but was not charged with driving on a revoked license.

In the City of Watertown in Dodge County, an ATV rider in 2019 was suspected of being drunk when he crashed his vehicle with a 9-year-old boy riding as a passenger. The boy suffered serious injuries, prompting County Sheriff Dale Schmidt to publicly denounce Wisconsin’s lax laws on drunken driving with ATVs.

Schmidt said he records about two fatal ATV crashes every year in Dodge County, and drunken operators frequently are the cause. Drivers convicted of being under the influence in their cars know they can avoid a second conviction by using an ATV or snowmobile instead, he said.

“They find other ways to get to the bar,” he said. “It’s a way around the law.”

A bill before the Legislature would make impaired driving on a recreation vehicle conviction part of an offender’s permanent driving record, and it would empower judges to revoke an offender’s driver’s license.

Law enforcement groups are getting behind the change in law, with them agreeing there is an “incredible inconsistency” in punishing drunken drivers less severely simply because they are operating a recreational vehicle rather than an automobile.

“This should be a no-brainer,” Subeck said. “It is a flaw in our current law.”

It’s time for the law to change.

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Racine Journal Times. November 29, 2021.

Editorial: Close the loophole to end street hunting season

Poorly written laws can lead to bad outcomes.

That was one of the lingering lessons from the Kyle Rittenhouse homicide trial in Kenosha.

Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the August 2020 protests and riots in the city when he shot and killed two protesters and wounded a third, was found not guilty this month after his defense attorneys successfully mounted a self-defense case.

That verdict was not unexpected by many who have followed the case. But what was surprising to many Wisconsin residents was when Judge Bruce Schroeder at the last minute tossed out a minor charge against Rittenhouse for being a minor in possession of a dangerous weapon.

That’s a misdemeanor charge that is punishable by a maximum of nine months in jail. The facts were pretty clear that Rittenhouse was 17 and that he carried a Smith and Wesson AR-15 semiautomatic weapon to the protests that night, ostensibly to help protect a downtown car lot.

Many thought that charge was a slam-dunk, but Judge Schroeder after hearing arguments from the prosecution and the defense threw out the charge before it went to the jury — and he was probably right to do so.

The overarching state law seems pretty clear, according to an Associated Press account: “Any person under 18 years of age who possesses or goes armed with a dangerous weapon is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.”

But a subsection of the law says it only applies to a person under age 18 if the person is in violation of another statute — s. 941.28 — which isn’t specific to minors, but forbids any person from having a short-barreled or sawed off rifle or shotgun.

Rittenhouse’s AR-15 was not short-barreled, although he was not legally allowed to buy the weapon – he gave the money to a friend who purchased it for him.

The law has a murky history and went through several legislative iterations. Before 1987, according to the AP account, “Wisconsin banned children from possessing pistols. Then Gov. Tommy Thompson signed a law that year that expanded the prohibition to include short-barreled firearms, electric weapons, brass knuckles, throwing stars and nunchakus. Four years later, Thompson signed another law extending the prohibition to any firearm. But that law also allowed minors to possess long guns for hunting as long as the barrels were at least a foot long.”

That hunting carve-out, which came at a time when the National Rifle Association was pushing efforts to encourage youth hunting and creating lifetime gun owners, was one of the reasons for the mayhem in Kenosha.

State Sen. Van Wangaard, R-Racine, said after the gun charge was dropped, “I was surprised that this charge was even brought in the Rittenhouse case. The law on this has been clear for 30 years, when a Democratic Legislature passed (Wisconsin law) allowing minors over the age of 16 to possess rifles. It’s been law for 30 years without a problem or outrage, and it doesn’t need to be changed now.”

With all due respect to the senator, we heartily disagree. Thirty years ago we doubt the governor or the Legislature envisioned 16- and 17-year-olds arming up with semi-automatic weapons and heading to a downtown street protest.

Those law changes were made to encourage hunting. So far as we know, Kenosha — or any other city in the state — does not have a street hunting season.

The Legislature needs to go back and rework the statutes and make sure juveniles are barred from carrying long guns — rifles or shotguns — unless they are engaged in hunting or hunting training. We do not want juveniles who do not have adult judgment parading down city streets, particularly during protests or civil disturbances. That can only lead to bad outcomes; just ask Kenosha.

Lawmakers, clean up this mess. Make the law clear this time.

END

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