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Lawmakers seek to change how some Wisconsin teens are prosecuted

When teenagers commit a crime, the potential punishment they face if convicted can vary largely depending on their age. Each person matures at a different pace, so it's not easy to say when someone actually becomes an "adult." but at a certain age, the law make that determination for them.

While 18 is often considered the age of legal adulthood, Wisconsin is one of just 11 states that automatically try 17-year-old criminal defendants in adult court. Thankfully, some lawmakers are working to change that. If passed, a recently proposed bill would treat 17-year-olds in Wisconsin as juvenile offenders if their alleged crime was non-violent and was their first offense.

There are many good arguments to be made for implementing such a change. First of all, emerging research shows that the adolescent brain is still developing at age 17; particularly in areas of risk analysis and impulse control. Therefore, it is not practical from a scientific standpoint to hold most 17-year-olds to the same criminal standards as adults.

Furthermore, 17-year-old offenders tried as adults tend to suffer additional consequences that are bad for them and bad for society as a whole. Compared to those tried as juveniles, 17-year-old offenders with an adult criminal record:

  • Are less likely to graduate high school
  • Are more likely to re-offend
  • Have a harder time getting into college or participating in military service
  • Have a harder time finding a job
  • Cost the taxpayers millions of extra dollars because of their lost individual productivity and higher recidivism rates

In addition to the scientific and practical arguments, this issue also comes down to fairness. The overwhelming number of juvenile arrests in Wisconsin (98 percent) are for non-violent offenses. Is it really fair to jeopardize the future of some non-violent offenders for the mistakes of youth?

This juvenile offenders bill currently has bipartisan support among state legislators. Hopefully, lawmakers will recognize that this issue is bigger and more important than either political party and will act accordingly. 


Source: Door County Advocate, "Bies urges returning 17-year-olds to juvenile justice system," Oct. 5, 2013

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