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Commentary: Why appeals are so important

By: Associated Press//June 14, 2024//

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Commentary: Why appeals are so important

By: Associated Press//June 14, 2024//

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We don’t doubt that people have their own opinions about the ongoing tussle before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals regarding whether the teen charged with killing Lily Peters is tried as an adult. We do.

After the circuit court’s ruling against a reverse waiver we agreed, saying if this crime doesn’t warrant trial as an adult, what does? We stand by that. But we also understand why what’s happening now needs to play out.

There’s a balance in courts, ideally, between the concepts of punishment and rehabilitation. The latter is actually a fairly new idea. Colonial America focused punishments on shaming — we’ve all seen pictures of people in stocks — and corporal measures. The goal was to make committing a crime too painful, either psychologically or physically, for people to act on such impulses.

The shift toward the idea of rehabilitation came in concert with the industrial revolution. That wasn’t an accident. As the nation moved toward urban centers rather than rural life, more people came into conflict with one another. The prison population shot up. By the late 19th century, strong pressure was emerging for incarceration to also represent a shot at renewal and rehabilitation.

The system today maintains that focus, at least officially. There’s good reason for that, though. The vast majority of those who find themselves in jail or in prison will eventually be released back into public life. It is far better for society to have those people return better able to function in society than during the events that led to their incarceration, though whether that idea is met is certainly up for debate.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that juvenile cases have evolved alongside the rest of the system. Up until the mid-19th century there really wasn’t such a system. Juveniles were generally placed alongside adults in jails or prisons. The Salem Witch Trials offer a particularly striking example of this. Dorothy Good was arrested and jailed for seven or eight months, and she was just 4 years old.

The first court dedicated to handling juvenile cases in the United States only dates to 1899, when it was set up in Cook County, Ill. About 70 years later juvenile courts were commonplace, with the Supreme Court weighing in about additional protections for young people accused of crimes.

While we disagree with the defense contention that placing Peters’ accused killer in the juvenile system would not lessen the seriousness of the crime, it is essential that the argument be heard and processed within the norms of our justice system. It is never acceptable for the system to toss aside protections for those accused of a crime out of disgust with the act. A full and effective defense is a cardinal guarantee in our system, and that right must be respected.

That includes the right to challenge the system itself in certain circumstances. There’s a parallel here to one of the points often made about the right to free speech. If we as a society are not willing to allow speech that offends or makes people uncomfortable, are we really allowing freedom of speech as envisioned in the First Amendment. The crime with which this teen is charged is odious. It is, and should be, repugnant to people. Still, we must afford the rights due a defendant, and that means letting the challenges play out.

Would we like to see the process completed speedily? Of course. That’s also supposed to be part of the system. It’s important to recognize that legal shortcuts would, in the long run, extend the appeals and the pain of those involved.


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