Legislation would remove 17-year-old criminal offenders from adult system

Views differ on juvenile court bill

Legislation would remove 17-year-old criminal offenders from adult system

The ‘second chance’ bill

Under a state law that took effect in 1996, 17-year-olds charged with crimes are handled in adult court instead of juvenile court. Here are some components of a bill under consideration in the Legislature that would alter the law:
• Those charged with non-violent offenses would be processed in the juvenile system.
• 17-year-olds charged with violent crimes such as homicide or rape would remain in the adult system.
• Prosecutors and judges will have the option to waive youths accused of serious offenses into adult court.
Source: Media and legislative reports


In Wisconsin, 17-year-olds are prohibited from voting, drinking alcohol or buying cigarettes. But if they break the law, they’re treated as adults.

It’s been that way since 1996, but a bipartisan bill under consideration in the Legislature would largely reverse the law and return many non-violent offenders to juvenile court.

Portage County Justice Programs Director Ross Dick said the proposal is overdue, because 17-year-old’s minds aren’t yet fully developed and a youthful indiscretion shouldn’t taint a person for a life.

“I’m not surprised, after this many years, that it’s being looked at again,” Dick said. “There were some things that were not well-thought out. I think it’s premature to send 17-year-olds to adult court for lower level crimes.”

Wisconsin is one of only 11 states where children under the age of 18 are automatically treated as adults. The law was passed in response to public sentiment to get tough on juvenile crime — especially violent offenders — by prosecuting them in the adult court system.

Portage County District Attorney Louis Molepske said he wasn’t opposed to the proposal, but prosecutors often take the offender’s age into account when making sentencing recommendations.

“Protecting the victim is my No. 1 concern in any new criminal proposal,” Molepske said. “That being said, providing a treatment alternative and a diversion alternative for juveniles is important for first-time offenders in non-violent allegations of crime.”

While he supports the proposal, Portage County Judge Thomas Eagon said it wouldn’t address the costs of rehabilitation – juveniles would be handled by county services instead of state services, and the proposal doesn’t address any of the funding needed for more juvenile offenders in the system.

“Seventeen-year-olds are basically high school students,” Eagon said. “I think they, and society in general, would be better served as being treated as juveniles as they are in every other aspect of society.”

Van Hollen opposes change

Under the proposal, known as the “second chance bill,” non-violent 17-year-old offenders would be handled in the juvenile system rather than adult courts. But those who commit violent crimes would remain in the adult system, along with those who have a prior record of delinquency.


While the plan has drawn support from the State Bar of Wisconsin and the State Public Defender, it is opposed by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

“Proponents of the legislation have not made the case that current discretion already available in the system is not effective or requires changes,” said Dana Brueck, communications officer for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. “Further, victims of crime never get a second chance.”

Brueck said courts often have sentencing discretion, district attorneys have charging discretion and law enforcement agencies can exercise discretion in crimes involving 17-year-olds.

“Diversion programs for non-violent offenders already exist,” she said. “These include first offenders’ programs. An offender’s age can be, and generally is, considered in these contexts.

“That said, we continue to believe that there is no need to change current laws and suggested changes to provide ‘second chances’ may diminish effective efforts to provide public safety, hold offenders accountable and lessen victimization.”

Flexibility for teen offenders

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families is among the groups that support changing the law.

“The reaction has been positive and there has been good bipartisan support,” said Jim Moeser, deputy director of the council.

The Assembly’s Corrections Committee unanimously approved the bill recently. Moeser is hopeful it will make it through the Legislature in 2014 so it can take effect in January 2015.

Moeser said there are a number of negative consequences for 17-year-olds who are prosecuted in adult court for non-violent offenses. Having an adult criminal record could prevent them from obtaining a college loan, getting a job or finding a place to live, he said.

The cost to Wisconsin counties of moving thousands of young offenders to the juvenile system is a consideration, according to Moeser.

“It does roll down to the counties,” he said. “We need to provide resources.”

The proposal to return non-violent 17-year-olds to juvenile court has the backing of Michael O’Hear, associate dean for research and professor of law at Marquette University Law School.

“It introduces more flexibility into the system,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

O’Hear said the changes that took place in 1996 were “part of a national movement to get tough on juvenile crime.”

He said placing 17-year-olds into an adult prison setting can create major problems.

“The juvenile system is set up to rehabilitate kids and the adult system has a much more punitive orientation,” O’Hear said. “There are some real concerns that putting kids into the adult system will make them worse.”