Criminal justice reform has a long way to go in Wisconsin. Along with being one of the most difficult states to get an expungement of your criminal record, the state has many other laws on the books that are very unfavorable to defendants. One is a law that automatically charges every 17-year-old who has been arrested as an adult, practically ensuring that they will begin their life with a criminal record that could be very hard to clear. While Wisconsin allows for expungement of criminal records when the defendant was under 25 when the crime was committed, this policy does not cover all crimes. This law seems more unfair and out of place in the current time. Therefore, efforts are underway to change this.

Appleton, Wisconsin Criminal Defense Attorneys at Hogan Eickhoff

Wisconsin Is One of the Harshest States in the Country on Defendants

There are only three states in the country with this harsh law, and Wisconsin is one of them. Years of advocacy failed to sway state lawmakers to change the law. Now that criminal justice reform has now entered the discussion in Wisconsin, there are some efforts to change this. Previously, there were nine states that had charged all 17-year-olds as adults. However, they have begun to change their laws, and now Wisconsin is one of the few remaining states with this law. The other two states are Georgia and Texas.

The usual rule is that how a 17-year-old is charged depends on the crime. Prosecutors are allowed to charge them as adults for more serious offenses. The momentum across the country is towards allowing more defendants to be charged as juveniles, recognizing the severe effects that criminal convictions have on young adults.

Wisconsin has a long history of charging young people with serious crimes. In fact, the entire juvenile system in the state began after a nine-year-old was sentenced to time in Waupun State Prison for larceny. The law in Wisconsin originally put defendants under the age of 18 into the juvenile system. The mid-1990s saw a number of criminal justice changes in the other direction, making laws much tougher on defendants. One of these amendments was lowering the age at which defendants were charged as adults in Wisconsin.

The Differences Between Juvenile and Adult Courts in Wisconsin

There are definite differences between the adult and juvenile legal systems in Wisconsin. The four primary differences are:

  • Juvenile proceedings are closed to the public and sealed, while the adult system is open to the public. Closing proceedings and sealing records saves a juvenile from a lasting record that can be available for public search.
  • The juvenile system is more focused on rehabilitation, while the adult system focuses on punishment.
  • Juveniles have more services available to them at the conclusion of their case. They may get counseling services when they are accused of offenses that would be less pressing in adult court.
  • Juveniles do not have a right to a jury trial, unlike adults in the system.

On balance, it is better to be tried as a juvenile than as an adult and being in the adult system will have far-reaching consequences.

Different Brains But the Same Treatment By the Law

Scientific evidence has shown that 17-year-olds do not have the same emotional maturity or developed brains as adults. They are more susceptible to outside pressure. On balance, they do not have the same ability as an adult to resist temptation. For these reasons, they cannot vote, legally own a firearm, or even buy a pack of cigarettes. Yet, they can still be tried as adults, thanks to the relic of a harsh law that was passed when every legislature was passing a crime bill.

One of the biggest pieces of evidence of this disparity is in how 17-year-olds are treated by the law. While alleged perpetrators are tried as adults, 17-year-old victims are considered to be children. It is entirely possible for a 17-year-old to face adult charges and penalties for harming a child when the alleged crime is committed against someone their own age. Not only is this a harsh law, but it draws on age as an artificial line when it may have nothing to do with the defendant’s actual capacities.

If a defendant is tried as an adult, and the crime is one that cannot be expunged, they may face some of the following consequences:

  • Difficulty finding a job in some categories of employment (although Wisconsin does not allow for hiring discrimination based on criminal history)
  • Losing the right to own a firearm
  • Trouble finding a place to live
  • The stigma in society that comes with being a criminal offender

The Laws May Soon Change With Bills in the State Legislature

Right now, the Wisconsin Legislature is considering a series of bills dealing with the issue. One option that appears to be gaining steam is a bright-line rule, raising the age for appearance in adult court to 18. Another option allows 17-year-olds to begin in the juvenile system with the ability to be waived into the adult court system if necessary.

17-year-olds who have been charged with a crime need legal help to understand their options. Decisions that they make now in the criminal justice process could follow them for decades to come. Taking a quick offer from the prosecutor now may make the problem go away in the short term, while leaving the defendant with long-term issues that last long after their sentence is completed.

Appleton Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you or your child has been charged with a crime, you need the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. Otherwise, law enforcement could take liberties with your own rights that could put you in a bad legal spot. Contact the attorneys at Hogan Eickhoff online or call us at (920) 450-9800 to schedule your free initial consultation.