It may seem like a tiny shift, but it’s enough to change thousands of lives. Wisconsin lawmakers are seeking to reverse a 1996 law that dropped the age of criminal responsibility by one year, from 18 to 17.
Since that law passed in 1996, 17-year-olds in the state have been tried and sentenced in adult court, and sent to adult prisons. Wisconsin is one of 13 states that automatically tosses 17-year-olds into the adult system. Looking back, one legislator says “it was a huge mistake, and I think everybody realizes that."
Not everybody, though. One paper, the Northwestern, points out that the bill may not move in this session, and says that might be a good thing.
According to the paper, supporters of the bill "rely on an emotional argument rather than presenting any quantifiable data on the long-term detriment to 17-year-olds who go through adult court." Nor, it says, do they "acknowledge how treating 17-year-olds as adults can be a deterrent to crime."
But the paper may have missed this report from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and this one from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. It shows that 17-year-olds are usually charged with minor crimes, and their recidivism rate in 2002 was an order of magnitude higher than both younger teenagers and adults. Something clearly isn't working here.
Since adolescents develop at their own pace, it’s difficult to draw a line at the 17th or 18th birthday and say folks older than that are more responsible for their actions. Even under the change, however, 17-year-olds would be eligible for adult court, it just wouldn't be automatic. Age limits are like mandatory minimums -- it’s important that we don’t set a policy that locks judges and juries into handing down outsized punishments.
Most 17-year-olds sent to adult prison in Wisconsin are there for possession of marijuana, or a high school fight, or having sex with a partner one or two years younger -- and judges, policy advocates and juvenile justice reforms say reversing the law could have a big impact. The bill is a smart policy change that would show that the state is willing to admit mistakes in its criminal justice system -- a move toward individual handling of cases is almost always the right way to go.
And while any change probably wouldn’t be retroactive, there’s a chance that a prisoner convicted at 17 could lean on a new law on appeal or in requesting parole.
Juvenile courts and detention facilities, when run properly, can actually make a big difference in kids' lives -- offering much-needed education and services and helping young people put mistakes behind them as they begin build their adult lives. Wisconsin lawmakers are on the right track with this proposal, and we'll keep an eye on it as it moves forward.
Photo Credit: Horia Varlan