Under current Wisconsin law, an individual charged with a crime is under the jurisdiction of juvenile court only if he or she is younger than 17. For several years, legislation intended to increase this age to 18 has been introduced, but has not been passed by the legislature . . . yet.
This legislative session, a new effort is underway to treat children under 18 as juveniles if they have not been previously adjudicated delinquent, they have not been convicted of a crime, or they are presently charged with a non-violent offense. Research and experience has shown that harsher criminal sanctions do not break the cycle of recidivism and that the consequences of a criminal record are detrimental to the future development and success of children. Returning 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system is more likely to have a better outcome for both the child and our society as a whole.
The biggest impediment to making this change has been the fiscal impact to counties, which pay the costs of juvenile detention. The current draft legislation seeks to mitigate the fiscal impact while beginning the process of more appropriately treating juveniles in the criminal justice system.
Also playing a part in the discussion is implementation of the Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) legislation. PREA requires either that anyone under 18 be housed in a juvenile detention facility or that extensive changes be made to the existing adult detention facility. The draft legislation would not only be the correct policy decision, but would also reduce the need to retrofit existing facilities to comply with PREA.
Other states have been making this change as well — including (most recently) Illinois. As other states have gone through the process of making the change, even reluctant partners in the criminal justice system have realized the benefit. As the bill moves forward in Wisconsin, I’m hopeful the same will happen here. We need to give every child a second chance at a real future!