By: Wil Steebs. Wil is an intern with the ACLU of Wisconsin.

A growing body of research has made it clear: most of our brains are not fully developed until age 25. In fact, the brains of adults and teens work differently; adults tend to think with their prefrontal cortex, the region associated with rational thinking and decision-making, whereas teens tend to think with their amygdala, the region associated with emotion. In teenage brains, the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are still developing, which inhibits teens’ decision-making ability.

In spite of this research, the legal definition of adulthood remains the same: once you reach 18 years of age, you may be tried in a Wisconsin court of law as an adult, even if your brain is not fully developed (and by all accounts, it won’t be). 18-year-olds are not capable of the same degree of rational thinking and careful decision making as fully fledged adults, but in the eyes of the law, they are indistinguishable. This is true in most states, but some are even worse: Wisconsin has the dubious distinction of being one of only three states whose criminal justice system still tries 17-year-olds as adults. Since 2011, eleven states have passed legislation raising the age, but Wisconsin, Georgia, and Texas continue to lag behind.

Why does this matter? Well, for starters, young people in adult correctional facilities are in far more danger than they would be in juvenile ones. The statistics are truly sobering. Children housed in adult jails or prisons are nine times more likely to commit suicide than their conterparts in juvenile facilities. They are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted. They are thirty-four times more likely to recidivate. 

The adult system is not equipped to meet the needs of young people. The carceral philosophy behind the adult criminal justice system is a punitive one, its function being more retributive than rehabilitative. While this is a flaw with our justice system in itself, when you couple this dehumanizing philosophy with the incarceration of vulnerable youth, it becomes a recipe for disaster. 

And a disaster it is. Wisconsin has the second highest Black-white incarceration disparity in the nation. Studies have shown that youth of color are disproportionately affected by the automatic transfer of young people into the adult correctional system. Furthermore, according to Kids Forward, a statewide policy advocacy organization, Black and Native American Children “more likely to face conviction in adult court, especially for drug-related crimes.” 

According to the National Institute of Justice, “Increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.” Locking up young people does not result in meaningful harm reduction; it results in meaningful harm. The Supreme Court has ruled in several instances that youth are less responsible than adults for their actions and are more capable of rehabilitation (Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, Miller v. Alabama, Montgomery v. Louisiana). Transitioning from a carceral approach to restorative justice has proven useful in California, and research has shown that restorative justice reduces recidivism among youth. It’s time for Wisconsin to take a similar stand; locking children up will not help them, but addressing the root causes of their issues will.