Local officials support bill that would change how some 17-year-olds are treated

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Andrea Anderson
Saturday, November 2, 2013

Some local officials support a bipartisan bill that would keep first-time, 17-year-old offenders in juvenile court.

Senate Bill 308 is working its way through the Legislature and would reverse a 1996 law requiring all 17-year-olds to be treated by the courts as adults, regardless of charges. 

Alan Bates, Rock County juvenile judge, said psychological and sociological evidence shows 17-year-olds should be treated differently than adults.

“They are not adults mentally or in their experience, and I would think for the 17-year-old it would be beneficial to be in juvenile court where services are emphasized above criminal convictions,” Bates said.

A change in the law would be a step closer in choosing one age that gives youth all adult privileges, Daniel Necci, Walworth County district attorney, said.

“We give 16-year-olds 2,000-pound machines of death to drive around the freeways,” Necci said. “At 17, you can be charged with a crime, but not until 18 can you vote for those who make the laws with which you are charged.”

Wisconsin is one of 11 states that automatically sends people under age 18 to adult court.

The bill would not change how the state prosecutes 17-year-olds who commit violent crimes, such as robbery, homicide, rape and sexual assault.

Keeping this aspect of the law is important, said Dan Davis, Janesville deputy police chief. 

How the bill would affect the number of Rock County juvenile court cases is unclear, Bates said, because he doesn't know how many 17-year-olds are treated as adults in the county.

If the caseload increases, he said it would not be unmanageable.

Davis said the change in law would not greatly affect the police department, but he anticipates an increase in the Rock County Juvenile Detention Center population.

The caseload and daily routine for Walworth County law enforcement and court officials is not expected to significantly change, Necci said.

“It's simply going to move the vast majority of cases that are low-level misdemeanor offenses to the juvenile system,” Necci said.

The State Bar of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference and the state public defender also support the change in law.

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