Our Views: Give more teens second chances in juvenile court

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Wisconsin should give 17-year-old nonviolent first-time offenders a break.

Instead of sending them to adult court and risking higher levels of recidivism, the state should pass Senate Bill 308 and keep these low-level offenders in the juvenile justice system, where they can get the help they might need.

Judge Alan Bates is assigned to Rock County’s juvenile court and understands the logic behind giving those who’ve messed up the first time a second chance. Maybe the kid was caught smoking pot near the high school. Maybe the girl was nabbed while stealing a fancy new purse she just had to have. Maybe that boy was apprehended for spraying graffiti on a bridge.

“They are not adults mentally or in their experience,” Bates told The Gazette, “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.”

Repeat offenders or 17-year-olds who commit violent crimes such as robbery, battery or sexual assault would still be tried as adults.

Nonviolent first-timers might benefit from counseling and treatment for drug or alcohol problems. If they’re cast instead into adult court, they might wind up with permanent blemishes on their records. Those could make employers reluctant to hire them.

Fortunately, at a time when lawmakers in Madison seem to clash on most every issue, SB 308 enjoys bipartisan support. Sponsors include Democratic Sens. Tim Cullen of Janesville and Fred Risser of Madison, as well as Republican Sens. Luther Olsen of Ripon and Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls. Assembly cosponsors include Democrats Debra Kolste of Janesville and Janis Ringhand of Evansville, as well as Republicans Amy Loudenbeck of Clinton and Garey Bies of Sister Bay.

Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci sees the merit in this change. He pointed out that 17-year-olds aren’t old enough to vote for those making the laws with which they can be charged. The Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office, the State Bar of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference also support the legislation.

Since 1996, Wisconsin has sent all 17-year-old offenders to adult court. The Badger State is one of just 11 states that does so.

A Florida study compared juvenile offenders with similar backgrounds and offenses. It found that those sent to adult court were more likely to re-offend as adults than those funneled through the juvenile system. Likewise, Judge Bates says psychological and sociological evidence suggests adults and juveniles should be treated differently.

Sure, if this legislation passes, it might make Bates busier as more offenders cycle through his court. Yet it will reduce the number of cases in adult court and the likelihood that more teenage first-time offenders turn to adult lives of crime.

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