Sept. 20, 2021 – Any parent knows that teenagers make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes are crimes that require the justice system to intervene.
The juvenile justice system handles criminal offenses for minors. It is distinct from adult courts, and provides specialized services tailored to youth that require restitution and/or community service, offering victims the opportunity to participate in victim-offender dialogue if they choose, and requiring youth to participate in treatment services that reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
Studies1 repeatedly show that youth placed in an adult prison reoffend after release at higher rates than young people placed in a juvenile institution. If treated as juveniles, teens have a better chance to learn from the situation and take steps to find success in the future. By keeping 17-year-olds in adult court, we are preventing them from getting the treatment they need to reduce the risk they will reoffend. The adult criminal justice system is neither adequately equipped nor designed to handle juveniles.
At this time, all 17-year-olds in WI are considered adults for the purposes of criminal prosecution, with no ability to be waived into juvenile court. This hasn’t always been the case—our state began treating all 17-year-olds as adults for criminal responsibility in 1996. Wisconsin is one of only three remaining states that sets the age of criminal responsibility at 17 years, a trend that has been rapidly reversing nationwide as states have realized the benefits reducing recidivism in young offenders.
The State Bar of Wisconsin supports returning original jurisdiction of 17-year-old juveniles to the juvenile justice system. The State Bar is not advocating the elimination of the ability of the court to try truly dangerous and mature 17-year olds in adult court when appropriate, but believes that as a matter of course, 17-year-old offenders would best be served in juvenile court.
Likewise, the State Bar of Wisconsin opposes the presumption that a juvenile must be shackled when brought to court.
Data from all over the country shows2 that shackling is not necessary to maintain courtroom safety, while indiscriminate shackling of youth can unnecessarily humiliate, stigmatize, and traumatize them.3 The practice impedes the attorney-client relationship, chills juveniles’ constitutional right to due process, runs counter to the presumption of innocence, and draws into question the rehabilitative ideals of the juvenile court. It can impede the ability of youth to fully process, understand, and participate in their legal proceedings. When a young person is brought before a court, the perception of guilt from shackling may add to biases already existing in the court system.
As of July 2019, thirty-two states have limited the automatic shackling of children during court proceedings. In many Wisconsin counties, detained youth are still routinely shackled in court without any proof that they are a flight or a safety risk.
With a presumption against indiscriminate shackling, judges would retain the ultimate authority on shackling. Evaluative factors can be utilized by each court to determine whether restraints are necessary. But unless the court makes a judicial determination that the child presents a substantial, present risk of harm or flight, shackling is unnecessary and harmful.
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1 Dept. of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Juvenile Transfer Laws: An Effective Deterrent to Delinquency? June 2010.
National Research Council.
Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach. 2013.
UCLA School of Law.
Impact of Prosecuting Youth in the Adult Criminal Justice System. July 2010.
2Campaign Against Indiscriminate Juvenile Shackling Fact Sheet: Shackling and Court Room Safety. January 2016.
3Barton Child Law and Policy Center.
Children in Chains: The Shackling of Georgia’s Youth. 2011.