I’ve been involved in the criminal justice system for over 30 years. Prior to serving as an attorney in private practice, I was a state and federal prosecutor, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and a circuit court judge. I presided in both adult criminal court and juvenile court.
From that vantage point, and from the perspective of someone who is also a father and a grandfather, I support returning 17-year-olds to juvenile court jurisdiction.
As members of the Wisconsin Legislature review the governor’s proposed 2015-17 budget, I hope they will consider giving 17-year-old offenders a second chance. Bipartisan support on this issue is a relatively small investment when compared with the significant economic and social benefits.
I was a judge in adult criminal court in the mid-’90s when 17-year-olds first became adults in the eyes of the criminal system. I saw teens coming in for lesser offenses, such as shoplifting. They were in an adult system that did not know how to handle them.
I felt frustrated because I knew these young people would have gotten better, more personalized services and better chances at success had they been in the juvenile system. In my opinion, their automatic placement in adult court did not make our communities any safer.
In the years since, research has only confirmed those early negative impressions. A study conducted by the state Legislative Audit Bureau found that only about 50 percent of young people placed on adult probation successfully complete their probation. Young people placed in an adult prison also re-offend after release at higher rates than young people placed in a juvenile institution.
Returning 17-year-olds to juvenile court is an opportunity for Wisconsin to be smart on crime. It’s also an opportunity for Wisconsin to treat 17-year-olds appropriately, fairly and effectively.
Whenever the state looks at changing our criminal statutes, it’s critical to consider the effect it will have on crime victims. Based on my time as a judge in juvenile court, I feel very strongly that the juvenile system will be more effective in helping young people pay their debt to victims. The juvenile system is very effective in providing opportunities for restitution, community service, and dialogue between offenders and their victims.
The juvenile system is also more likely to have success in connecting young people with the treatment they need to reduce the risk that they’ll reoffend in the future.
Recent data compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Justice has shown that between 2009 and 2013 juvenile arrests have declined statewide by more than 36 percent, which tells me the cost of moving our teens back to the juvenile system may be lower than projected.
Transitioning this group of offenders to juvenile court would provide young people who have made a mistake a second chance at a brighter future, one that allows them to graduate from high school, attain higher education, find employment, and positively contribute to society without an adult criminal record holding them back.
Wisconsin is one of only nine states that treat all 17-year-olds as adults. As recently as 2013, our neighbors to the south voted to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction. Now in Illinois, 17-year-old offenders who are charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies are tried and sentenced in juvenile court.
As a father, grandfather and member of the legal community, I believe it’s time for Wisconsin to look forward and return 17-year-olds to juvenile court and truly give them a second chance.