Note: Wisconsin is one of just three states (Georgia and Texas are the others) in which 17-year-olds are automatically treated as adults for purposes of criminal charges. The other 47 states process charges against 17-year-olds within the juvenile justice system. Wisconsin Justice Initiative has joined the Raise the Age Coalition, advocating for legislation to return Wisconsin's 17-year-olds to juvenile court.
By Roy Rogers
Outside of the brain development research that counsels against treating 17-year-olds as adults, placing them in an adult setting is unhealthy and borders on benign cruelty.
For these 17-year-olds, and those even younger, treating them like adults and keeping them in the adult system, together with more sophisticated adult criminals in the facilities, could, can, and has led to increased criminality in the institutional settings. At times they are forced to partake in activities that are harmful for them, due to the strong pressure from mob mentality and older incarcerated people.
You increase the likelihood of assaults and trauma and aggravate mental health issues, which a lot of young people are dealing with when they enter into the correctional system.
People sometimes have the misconception that the young person will have access to more treatment resources in the adult facilities, but that is not the case. More than likely, 17-year-olds going into the adult system have lengthy sentences. With long incarceration times, the likelihood of getting them involved in any treatment programs is thin. The institution will consider them too early in their sentence structure for programming treatment. In modern correctional wisdom, programming and treatment are provided to those who are about to return to the community within the next year or two, five years at the most.
Accountability and treatment in a setting conducive to healing and restoration are what 17-year-olds need — not to be placed in a problem-plagued adult system that is not getting better anytime soon.
I knew a few 17-year-olds who were treated as adults after having been waived into adult court. There were some commonalities in their incarcerated experience:
These scenarios become even more glaring if a youth is a part of the LGBTQ community. In the hypersexual prison settings, trauma for these youth will come from both ends — staff and fellow incarcerated people, some out of ignorance and some out of intention. Why put any 17-year-old through that?
We know adolescents make bad decisions; that’s no secret. And yes, sometimes those bad decisions have great consequences in our community and accountability is a must. However, accountability is also about having the opportunity to make amends. Placing a 17-year-old in the adult system actually closes the door on the meaningful opportunity to make amends. The adult system is not set up for that in any shape or form.
If the youth is kept within the juvenile system, programming and a wide variety of treatment options are available. A package of community service, community counseling, community accountability, and community engagement can all be put in place for the eventual restoration of these youth back into the community.
I, too, was once a 17-year-old in the adult system. So I bear witness and have first-hand knowledge of everything I speak of. In the field of macroeconomics, we talk a lot about marginal analysis in which we compare marginal benefits against marginal costs in our economic decisions. So from my economic perspective, when the marginal costs outweigh the marginal benefits, it is a bad decision.
The marginal costs of placing 17-year-olds in the adult system outweigh whatever marginal benefits policymakers think will occur. Such a decision can cost children their lives. It can cost them through the inability to recover from the traumas of being a child in an adult prison. Plus, the potential for them to be trapped in the cycle of incarceration increases dramatically. The humanitarian cost outweighs any economic benefit one may gain by treating these 17-year-olds like adults. Treating these juveniles as adults is a bad decision.
Roy Rogers is a Wisconsin Justice Initiative board member. He is a data solutions processor at Quad Data Solutions and a preentry and reentry liaison and information analyst for the nonprofit organization The Community. He also is a public speaker and advocate with the Wisconsin Alliance for Youth Justice.
Rogers committed himself to juvenile justice issues while serving 28 years as a juvenile lifer in the Wisconsin prison system. Now, after release, he counsels and mentors at-risk youth. He is committed to the philosophy of restorative justice, criminal justice reform, and second-chance opportunities for juveniles waived into adult court and sentenced as adults.
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