Wisconsin, in addition to its extensive dairy industry and cold winters, is notable for being
one of the few states in the country where juveniles are subject to adult prosecution at age 17.
Thus, in Wisconsin, a juvenile can go through the adult criminal justice system a full year before reaching the age of adulthood. Naturally this dynamic is a matter of controversy, as it can have wide-ranging consequences for the individual charged.
Advantages of Juvenile Court
It is important to note the distinctions between juvenile court and adult court. In the juvenile court system, individuals charged with criminal acts are provided significantly more resources than those they would be afforded when going through the adult court system.
Juvenile delinquents are assigned a case worker from the county’s human services department, have social histories compiled on their background, and often get access to a litany of programs aimed to help areas of deficiency. Other advantages in the juvenile court system include no imposition of bail, no bail jumping charges if court orders are not followed, and the confidential nature of court proceedings.
Under these conditions, it is obvious that a juvenile charged with a criminal offense would likely prefer juvenile court. When assigned case workers, those charged in juvenile court have another individual in addition to their attorney who can guide them through the court process, who also serves as a soundboard for any worries or concerns the juvenile may express. A caseworker can also identify the needs of the juvenile and give the court a better understanding of the underlying issues that led the juvenile to commit the offenses.
Through the resources made available by human services, juveniles can get the resources they need to overcome some of the underlying issues that led to the criminal offense, and work toward avoiding recidivism.
The added layer of confidentiality is also a valuable feature of the juvenile justice system. Private hearings give the juvenile a better opportunity to move forward in their life without their criminal charges being publicly available information for friends, family, and the public at large. The inaccessibility of juvenile matters at the courtroom or on Wisconsin’s Circuit Court Access Program (CCAP) give the juvenile offender privacy even if they end up pleading to any charges.1
Matthew Kline, Ohio State 2021, is an assistant district attorney in the juvenile division with the Racine County District Attorney’s Office.
Conditions Faced by 17-year-old Defendants
Being subject to adult jurisdiction can have a significant impact on the juveniles being charged. In adult court, juveniles are not afforded certain services and more lenient penalties. Instead, juveniles face bail conditions, maximum penalties, and a lack of confidentiality, in stark contrast to their juvenile court cases. A judge sentencing the case in adult court would also be much more hamstrung in their ability to impose more lenient sentences on a juvenile in adult court, due to the nature of mandatory minimums and other statutory requirements.
Going through arraignment in adult court also raises the specter of confinement for juveniles. Those 17-year-olds who are unable to make cash bail are placed with adult offenders. Individuals that are still going through a highly impressionable period in their lives will then be surrounded by offenders who may have significant criminal backgrounds. This exposure could lead to juveniles being more predisposed to criminal activity than they would have been otherwise if they were surrounded by peers of similar age in juvenile detention.
Although under Wisconsin criminal law they are considered adults, it is important to remember that 17-year-olds are still juveniles. As a result, 17-year-old defendants share largely the same maturity and characteristics prevalent among typical juvenile justice system offenders. Despite this, they face the conditions that are placed on adult defendants. This can have a wide impact on a 17-year-old’s educational attainment, personal development, and mental health. Furthermore, it is not clear whether such harsher penalties present in adult court actually serve to change the behavior of the 17-year-old criminal defendant.
The impact of the adult criminal justice system on juveniles has been the subject of extensive research. A study conducted by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law’s Juvenile Justice Project that analyzed 15 states illustrated that juveniles prosecuted in adult court were rearrested 82% of the time following their release.2
Several other studies conducted over the past few decades noted that juveniles convicted of violent offenses in adult court had higher rates of recidivism when compared to juveniles convicted of violent offenses in juvenile court.3 While not an extensive listing of the outcomes of juveniles charged in adult court, these studies nonetheless illustrate the lack of deterrence adult court can provide for some juveniles.
Contemporary Views on the Current System
The juvenile justice system in Wisconsin does not come without detractors. In his 2021 state budget proposal, Gov. Tony Evers expressed a desire to place 17-year-olds under the purview of the juvenile court system.4 Evers expressed that the current system is a waste of taxpayer dollars without addressing the needs of the State and wished for further investment in rehabilitation, treatment, and alternatives to incarceration. The governor’s proposal was praised by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which indicated that pushing 17-year-olds into the adult court system was “immoral.”5
Others take it a step further, and note that the entire juvenile court system needs to be reformed. They argue that the current juvenile detention model is often a harsh environment that causes juveniles placed in confinement to experience increased trauma and anger. They note that all teenagers lack the judgment and self-control expected of adults, and would benefit more from opportunities that would address impulse control.6
Conclusion: Room for Improvement
Like the state of our criminal justice system in general, there is always ample room for improvement in the juvenile court system.
It is important to understand that juvenile offenders have substantially different needs than that of a typical criminal defendant, and that those needs do not end once a juvenile reaches the age of 17. In order to ensure a more robust and rehabilitative juvenile justice system that would prevent some of the issues with the current nature of criminal charging, it may be necessary to rethink the age an individual can be criminally charged as an adult.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s
Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar
sections or the
Public Interest Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
1 Hon. Thomas Walsh, “Adults Only: Returning 17 Year Olds to Juvenile Court,”
Wisconsin Lawyer, Nov. 1, 2014.
2 Nicole Scialabba, “Should Juveniles Be Charged as Adults in the Criminal Justice System?”, American Bar Association, Oct. 3, 2016.
3 Richard Redding, “Adult Punishment for Juvenile Offenders: Does it Reduce Crime?”,Working Paper Series, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, 4 (2006).
4 Corri Hess, “Evers Proposing Sweeping Changes to Juvenile Justice System,”
Wisconsin Public Radio, Feb. 17, 2021.
5 Heather Poltrock, “Gov. Evers looks to return 17 year-olds to juvenile justice system. Currently, they’re charged as adults,” WSAW-TV, Feb. 17, 2021.
6 Elsa Lehrer, “Juvenile Criminal Justice: The Benefits of a more Lenient Youth Policy,”
Brown Political Review, Oct. 26, 2022.