Vice President, Criminal Justice Policy
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Marc Levin | September 4, 2013
The age at which a citizen should be treated as an adult is one that comes up in many contexts, from drinking alcohol to voting. A 17 year-old, of course, can neither legally consume alcohol or vote.
In most states, the default rule is that 17 year-olds are processed in the juvenile justice system, which typically focuses more on rehabilitation, works closely with schools and child welfare agencies, has lower probation caseloads, and of course places youths in facilities where they do not share cells with hardened adult career criminals. Also, juvenile records except in the most serious cases are usually sealed when a youth becomes an adult unless they have continued to engage in criminal activity.
Wisconsin is one state where all 17 year-olds charged with a crime automatically enter the adult criminal justice system, even if it stealing a candy bar or smoking pot. However, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is unveiling legislation that would change that. Under this proposal, 17 year-olds charged with a first-time, nonviolent offense would be processed through the juvenile justice system while other 17 year-olds would continue to be charged as adults.
The primary reason to keep more youngsters in the juvenile system is that it is more effective in reducing recidivism, leading to greater public safety. A Florida study considered 475 pairs of juveniles in Florida, matched for age, gender, race, offense history, offense severity, and other factors, with one of each pair transferred to criminal courts while the other was retained in juvenile courts. In 29 percent of pairs, only the transferred juvenile re-offended, while for less than 15 percent of pairs did only the retained juvenile re-offend. After age 18, 50 percent of those transferred to criminal courts re-offended while 35 percent of those adjudicated by a juvenile court re-offended. And in those cases where both members of a matched pair re-offended, the transferred juvenile was more likely to have committed a more serious felony. Studies in other states have found similar results.
There are also other important factors. Those 17 year-olds who commit a first-time, nonviolent offense will be better able find employment and housing later in life if they are not saddled with a permanent adult criminal record. Perhaps the most overlooked factor in the discussion, however, if the integrity of the family. Few parents would not want to know if their 17 year-old son or daughter is arrested and placed in jail. Yet, when these teens are processed in the adult system, they can be arrested, jailed, and released without notice to a parent or guardian. This is especially problematic given that 17 year-olds are covered by the Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law, meaning they are hopefully in school being supported by their parents.
Given these considerations, this is an important issue for Wisconsin policymakers to address. The proposal in Wisconsin to redirect nonvi nt, first-time 17 year-old offenders into the juvenile justice system is sponsored by Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay), Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), Senator Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), and Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood). The bill is expected to be heard in early October.