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Proposal would bump age for juvenile crimes

Once an individual turns 18, he or she has the right to cast a ballot and legally purchase a pack of cigarettes.

Now legislators in Wisconsin are suggesting that the same age should be the threshold for being charged with a crime in adult court.

Rep. Fred Kessler said he plans to introduce a bill in the coming month to restore the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18.

The threshold is currently 17. Wisconsin changed its law in 1995 as part of a national trend of states modifying laws to deter juvenile criminal activity.

“I think the change proved to be a mistake,” said Kessler, who previously served as a circuit court judge. “One of the things we know is kids don’t mature as early as people wish, but we’re treating them as adults and giving them criminal records.”

Currently, every 17-year-old who commits a crime is tried in an adult criminal court and is subject to the prison, jail and probation sentences of the adult criminal system, without exception.

Prosecutors can also seek to have a judge waive someone 16 or under into adult court.

Jim Moeser, Executive Director for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, said prosecutors would be able to seek waivers to still charge some 17-year-olds as adults.

He suggested that courts are often reluctant to waive 16-year-olds into adult court, but prosecutors may have more success arguing that certain 17-year-olds who commit serious crimes or have a history of offenses should be charged as adults.

More work for defense attorneys

The proposed change could create more work for defense attorneys seeking to challenge whether their client should be charged as an adult.

“If it gets bumped back to 18, I think we’ll see more waivers. In terms of work, it would be worth it for the defense to argue for some juvenile resolutions,” said Janesville criminal attorney Michael A. Haakenson.

Haakenson backs the proposal, noting that it would offer more flexibility as to whether a person should be charged in adult or juvenile court.

He recently had several cases involving 17-year-old defendants who were charged in adult court.

“It would have been nice to have had the ability to argue to keep them in the juvenile system,” he noted.

Former prosecutor Mark Lukoff also supports the change, and argued that juvenile punishment can still be an effective deterrent.

The Racine defense attorney said the vast majority of crimes committed by people under 18 do not warrant a trip to adult court.

“To just pick an age and say ‘we’ll treat everyone like and adult’ can be considered a knee-jerk reaction to a given case or series of high-profile activities by a minority of individuals,” Lukoff charged.

According to Moeser, about 30,000 17-year-olds are arrested each year, but only about 500 end up in jail.

“The juvenile system has a better chance to redirect kids and produce somewhat lower recidivism rates than the adult system,” Moeser said. “We’ve seen some of the negative impacts in young adults if they have a criminal record that could just as well have been a juvenile record.”

Under the proposal, 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors would be sent to juvenile court starting in July 2010; juveniles charged with a felony would follow suit in July 2011.

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