Second Chance Bill Would Return Nonviolent 17-Year-Old Offenders to Juvenile Court System

Story Date: 
Apr 16, 2014

By Jim Moeser, Wisconsin Council for Children and Families

We did not quite make it through the legislative maze to get the 2nd Chance Bill passed this session, but we will bring it back next year. The bill would reverse some changes enacted in 1995, which reduced the age at which a person is considered an adult for purposes of prosecution from 18 to 17. Currently, only about one in 20 arrests of 17-year-olds are for a serious crime, and only about one in 50 arrests are for offenses classified as violent.

“The vast majority of arrests of 17-year-olds are for relatively minor, non-violent offenses,” said Patrick Fiedler, president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.  “This bill  provides a way to hold these youth accountable for their actions while giving them a  second chance to grow into responsible adults.”

Under the current proposal, 17-year-olds who commit serious offenses or have a prior delinquency record would still be handled in the adult justice system. The bill does not change current laws that permit a 17-year-old to be waived to adult court if it is determined to be appropriate by the court.

The “adultification” of youth in the justice system often haunts them for life. Youth with adult criminal records are less likely to graduate from high school and have greater difficulty finding jobs. They may also find themselves unable to vote, and have their access to higher education, military service, and public housing limited. Youth are more likely to be assaulted in adult facilities, and have a much higher suicide rate. Youth who have done adult time are also more likely to commit subsequent crimes than peers treated in the juvenile system.

“The adult system is simply not set up to address the needs of adolescents,” said State Public Defender Kelli Thompson. “Teenagers cannot get the treatment and services they need in an adult jail or prison. Keeping these children in the juvenile system and giving them access to the needed treatment leads to fewer youth re-offenses, giving these young adults a greater opportunity to be contributing members of their communities.”

Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions reinforce what research over the past 15 years has shown and what public opinion supports – that given the right services, youth have a greater capacity to change for the better than adults. Over the last decade, nearly 20 states have revised their laws to reduce the number of youth charged in adult court. With the recent passage of laws raising the age of adult jurisdiction in Connecticut and Illinois, Wisconsin will be one of only 11 states that automatically treats youth under 18 as adults.

At the end of the day concerns raised by counties about financing the change were heeded, blocking consideration and passage of the second chance bill this year.  However, we believe the door is open, and key leaders will be moving forward to introduce this bill again and push for inclusion of appropriate funding in the 2015-17 Budget.  The WCCF team will be actively working with others over the summer and through the fall to make sure the gains made over this past session are not lost.

This is an idea whose time has come.  Since 1996 a quarter of a million Wisconsin 17 year olds have been unnecessarily arrested as adults, and Wisconsin needs to join with an ever-decreasing number of states (now down to 10) that lowered the age of adult court in the past but are in the process of raising it back to 18.  Our goal of getting this changed as of July 1, 2015 is within reach, and we will get there!