By Christina Sandidge
Even while some in Wisconsin call for a law that would prevent 17-year-olds from being tried as adults, state lawmakers have yet to take formal steps in that direction.
Meanwhile other states are seriously considering such a change to their laws. The case of Olivia Brown shows why.
When the 17-year-old living in Raleigh, N.C., was looking for a job and employers conducted a background check, they would quickly learn that she had been cited for assault and having a weapon on school grounds — both misdemeanors from when she had pepper-sprayed a girl during a fight at school last year.
What the employers wouldn’t learn was that the young woman was once homeless and had still managed to graduate early from high school. Brown fears that her “stupid mistake” will wreck her dreams of going to college and becoming a psychologist.
A big reason the records continue to dog Brown is that North Carolina tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
“I can’t even go to the mall by myself at 17, but I can get charged as an adult,” Brown said. “When you graduate, you want to do something … but no one wants to hire you now. … I seemed like a criminal or someone dangerous, which I’m not.”
But the law is changing. North Carolina lawmakers approved a budget deal last week that includes a policy decision sending nonviolent 16-and 17-year-olds to juvenile court instead of adult criminal court. And in New York state, lawmakers agreed in April to phase out the practice.
In Wisconsin, many legal professionals agree that there are serious flaws in any system that denies 17-year-olds many of the basic privileges of adulthood but then forces them into adult court.
Yet, even with those concerns and change afoot in other states, similar efforts have failed so far in Wisconsin.
Patrick Fiedler, a lawyer now at Hurly Burish & Stanton and a former Dane County Circuit Court judge, spent his term as a State Bar president urging lawmakers to adopt a proposal that would have moved 17-year-old nonviolent offenders into juvenile court. In Wisconsin, 17-year-olds have been prosecuted as adults since 1996.
Fiedler was on the bench in Dane County then and thus got to see the effects of the new law first hand. Suddenly, he recalled, 17-year-olds were coming into adult court to be tried on shoplifting charges. One of his first thoughts was that the law change meant that the parents no longer had to be notified.
“To me, it’s just fundamentally unfair,” Fiedler said. “I don’t know if people think about it – and I really didn’t until I started getting involved in this: One of the things that happen when you turn 18 is you now you have the ability to sign a contract legally obligating you to certain things. So, for the first time you can sign a contract to lease an apartment, buy a car. But 17-year-olds can’t do that. Seventeen-year-olds can’t get married, can’t enter the military service without parental permission – they can’t do anything. But the one area in Wisconsin where we treat them as an adult is if they’re 17 and commit a crime. They immediately go to adult court. ”
With Fiedler at its helm, the State Bar put in more than 500 hours in the state’s 2013-14 legislative session lobbying for legislation that would have restored the age threshold for going into adult court to 18. Back then, the proposal was known as the “second chance” bill.
Besides the State Bar, support came from the State Public Defender’s Office.
“Advances in research since the 1990s have shown that treating 17-year-olds as juveniles increases public safety as well as increases the prospects for juveniles to return to their communities as productive members of society,” said Randy Kraft, communications director for the public defender’s office.
Fiedler and Kraft noted there were two main obstacles blocking the bill’s adoption: costs and public opinion.
Some opponents of setting the age threshold at 18 maintain that punishing teens as adults sends a message that the state is tough on crime. In North Carolina, state Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican who voted against raising the age for adult court to 18 in his state, has voiced just that opinion.
“Let’s continue to administer justice against crime and take care of the victims, not follow the crowd, going soft on crime,” he said recently.
In Wisconsin, in contrast, the bigger concern has had to do with budgets. An estimate attached to the latest proposal found that the cost of accommodating 17-year-olds in juvenile court would run into the millions – a burden that would fall primarily on the state’s 72 counties.
In its testimony, the Wisconsin Counties Association contended that the counties simply could not come up with the resources to pay for such a change, according to legislative hearing documents.
So the bill, although it had support from both major political parties, never made it to a floor vote in either house.
The same bill was introduced again in the Wisconsin state Legislature’s 2015-16 session but was never scheduled for committee hearings.
“It’s not a personal disappointment,” Fielder said. “It’s a disappointment that we haven’t passed this when it’s in the best interest of these kids to do so.”
— Wisconsin Law Journal Staff Writer Erika Strebel contributed to this report.