Seventeen-Year-Old Wisconsin Offenders Face Harsh Punishments

Wisconsin is one of 13 states with laws classifying 17-year-olds as adults in their criminal justice systems, producing harsher penalties for minor offenders. Many people are surprised to learn that all 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults in Wisconsin, because for all other purposes they are not considered adults. Seventeen-year-olds cannot vote, or enter into contracts. Yet they are prosecuted in criminal court - and that means the court records are open to anyone, including future employers or colleges.

Treating 17-year-olds as adults can also have tragic consequences. After the jail suicide of their son, who was classified as an adult at age 17, some Wisconsin parents are advocating for abolishing the state law that treats 17-year-olds as adults in criminal matters.

Facing attempted homicide charges for stabbing his father and brother, the 17-year-old son remained in adult jail. According to his parents, he desperately needed mental health services to deal with head injuries from sports and Oxycontin abuse before he committed suicide. His parents and other advocates say Wisconsin's juvenile justice system provides these services and is focused on changing behavior through rehabilitation and treatment, rather than by simply punishing young offenders, and they assert that the law must be changed.

Penalties under the adult criminal justice system are different from the juvenile system. Placing youths in adult systems means longer sentences and less individualized treatment. There are also fewer services to assist with behavioral change and fewer opportunities for families to get involved when a 17-year-old is in the adult system. In fact, studies reveal that youths in adult systems commit new crimes more often than those in youth facilities.

Youths also have a greater risk of harassment and death in an adult system. Suicide rates are higher as well. Statistics show that juveniles are 36 times more likely to kill themselves in an adult prison than in a juvenile detention facility.

Supporters of changing Wisconsin's law advocate for placing 17-year-old offenders into the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, while still maintaining procedures allowing courts to move them to the adult system if truly necessary. In addition, juvenile court records are generally closed to the public, which helps protect the offender from future adverse consequences because of one offense committed while the person was still very young and immature.

If your child has been charged with a crime or juvenile offense in Wisconsin, contact an experienced Wisconsin criminal defense attorney for legal advice as soon as possible.