A move to overturn the state law to try 17-year-olds as adults could allow better access to the services they need to avoid staying in the prison system, supporters of a proposed bill said.
At a public hearing Thursday, legislators plan to review a bill to return first time, non-violent 17-year-old offenders to the juvenile justice system instead of trying them as adults, as in current state law.
Michael Caldwell, a UW psychology professor, said this bill would have a positive impact on juveniles’ futures.
Juvenile records are much more confidential than adult court records, which is helpful for the juvenile offender, Caldwell said.
“When that person goes to apply for a job, [their crimes] wouldn’t show up on their records as an offense,” Caldwell said. “If those smaller things are kept in juvenile court, they’re not going to have as much of an effect on their ability to get a foothold in the adult world.”
State Bar of Wisconsin President Patrick Fiedler said he plans to speak in favor of the bill.
“One of the things I think is that, because you’re talking about 17-year-olds, they have no adult rights whatsoever,” Fiedler said. “They can’t sign a contract, they can’t lease an apartment…so why are we putting them in adult court?”
Sabrina Gentile, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families government relations director, said the bill would also help to keep juveniles out of the criminal system permanently.
Based on observations of 17-year-old offenders, services could help reduce the high rates of juvenile offenders returning to crime, Gentile said. Almost half of 17-year-olds tried as adults released in 2002 were incarcerated again, as compared to only 26.6 percent of juvenile offenders during the same time period, according to a 2008 WCCF report.
“The original legislation that we support is returning all 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system,” Gentile said. “When you do that, those people’s services are paid for by the county. The reason we want to return them is because of those services, but if we were to return all 17-year-olds at once, it would involve a large price tag.”
Returning only first time, non-violent offenders to the juvenile system shrinks the bill’s cost from about $50 million to $10 million, Gentile added.
Although 54 legislators have co-sponsored the bill, Gentile said resistance from some legislators is still a concern. Some legislators that were a part of the 1995-1996 decision to try 17-year-olds in the adult juvenile system remain in the Legislature today and could oppose the new bill.
“They thought you had to be tough on crime, but we’ve realized that that isn’t really being smart on crime,” Gentile said.
A statement from the Second Chance Alliance said the completion of additional studies in adolescent brain development and success of community-based programs for juvenile offenders demonstrate the bill’s significance.
Fiedler said the juvenile system should also be entrusted with these offenders since they are better equipped to try them.
“They can help them make restitution, do community service, make sure they’re going to class, help with any alcohol or drug problems,” Fielder said. “I’m not saying these programs aren’t available in the adult court system, but they’re more limited.”