Wisconsin Law Too Hard on 17-Year-Olds?

At age 17, you are too young to vote. You also can't buy alcohol or cigarettes, and your access to some common household items - like over-the-counter medications containing ephedrine and chemicals like benzene - could be limited. If you are 17 and commit a crime, though, you will face the same consequences as an adult. Why is that important? Because the juvenile justice system focuses on rehabilitation, while the adult criminal justice system emphasizes punishment instead.

The different goals of the two justice systems mean that an identical crime could have very different consequences depending on where the case is tried. The disparity was highlighted in the notorious case involving a 17-year-old Wisconsin boy accused of attempted murder after allegedly stabbing his father and brother. His family and legal counsel argued that the boy's mental health issues, history of sports-related head injuries, drug abuse and young age necessitated keeping his case in the juvenile justice system so that he could get the treatment he needed. The court - bound by the 1996 law that automatically puts 17-year-old defendants in the adult criminal system - had no choice, and charged him as an adult.

While young Kirk Gunderson's case was pending in criminal court, he was held in solitary confinement in the LaCrosse County jail. He killed himself without ever having his case heard by a jury.

Details of Wisconsin's "Categorical Exclusion" Law

Critics argue that this tragic story is one of many underscoring the negative consequences of the law. Wisconsin is one of few states to take this approach, referred to as "wholesale age exclusion," by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The law was passed in Wisconsin in 1996, and completely closes the door of the juvenile justice system to defendants age 17 or older, ensuring that charges will be brought against those offenders in the adult criminal system.

Proposed Legislation to Change Current Law

Research by the Department of Corrections found that 17-year-olds held in adult prisons had a noticeably higher recidivism rate than both fellow juveniles released from juvenile detention and adults released from adult prisons. The Campaign for Youth Justice notes that over the past five years, 15 states have adjusted statutes to rise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and keep young offenders out of adult jails.

In fact, Wisconsin's neighboring states, Illinois and Indiana, have already made similar changes. State Rep. Fred Kessler of Milwaukee is once again - for the third time - pushing for Wisconsin to join in these changes and remove the arbitrary 16-year-old age limit for juvenile justice.

The proposed legislation may lead to changes in Wisconsin's criminal justice system. These changes will hopefully help juvenile offenders, but it might make navigating through the system even more difficult. As a result, if you or a loved one is charged with a crime, it is wise to seek the counsel of an experienced Wisconsin criminal defense attorney to better protect your rights.