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Giving 17-Year-Old Wisconsin Kids a Second Chance

There is bipartisan support for legislation in Wisconsin to return to treating 17-year-old non-violent, first-time offenders in Juvenile Court. Credit: Arva Csaba/iStockphoto
There is bipartisan support for legislation in Wisconsin to return to treating 17-year-old non-violent, first-time offenders in Juvenile Court. Credit: Arva Csaba/iStockphoto
November 18, 2015

MADISON, Wis. - Seventeen-year-olds in Wisconsin may be getting second chances. In early December, there will be another hearing in the state Senate regarding legislation to reverse the 1996 law that says 17-year-old offenders must be charged in adult court.

The proposed changes would allow 17-year-olds who are violent or repeat offenders to be charged as adults, but not first-time nonviolent offenders. Jim Moeser, deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, points out that Wisconsin doesn't treat 17-year-olds as adults for anything else.

"A kid can actually be convicted by a jury but can't serve on one, and can't sign contracts, and all the other kinds of rights that kids that age don't have," says Moser. "But beyond that, it's really a win-win for the community and for the youths themselves. They get the services they need; they don't end up with an adult record that haunts them for the rest of their life."

A number of studies have shown that young people treated in the adult system are significantly more likely to re-offend than those who end up in the juvenile system, where they can receive treatment and services not available through adult court. Wisconsin is one of only nine states that treat all 17-year-olds as adults in criminal matters.

Similar legislation in prior sessions has stalled because the cost of implementing a change back to the old system would fall on the counties, which estimate it could cost up to $6 million. Moeser disagrees.

"We believe that the cost is not as high as the counties say – that it's a good investment, and that the Legislature needs to think in terms of investing up front in this way to really save long-term," he says. "This could be a really good, strong bipartisan positive move and a good investment."

The legislation has 70 bipartisan supporters and even the conservative MacIver Institute notes for the last several years, juvenile arrests have decreased, funding to counties has increased, and state funding for youth aid has increased in recent years.

According to Moeser, some advocates say the proposed changes in the law should apply more broadly, but he thinks 17 is the right age to start.

"Developmentally, 17-, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds are all sort of in that same ballpark, and there are people who suggest juvenile court procedures ought to apply to kids as old as 21," says Moeser. "We think it's sort of a good middle ground at this point, to really learn from and experience, and get the kids that don't commit serious crimes back in the juvenile system."

Moeser estimates that of the more than 15,000 17-year-olds charged every year, about two-thirds would stay in the juvenile system under the narrow definitions of the new legislation.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI