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Report Prompts New Calls for WI to 'Raise the Age' for Criminal Responsibility

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In Wisconsin, if a 17-year-old is arrested, they're automatically treated as an adult defendant. There's been a push to "Raise the Age," so these teens can go through the juvenile justice system instead, and supporters say a new report added to that urgency.

The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center, looked at 11 states that have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18. It found the change contributed to diverting more than 100,000 young adults into the juvenile system.

Kyle Minden, organizer for the Raise The Age Coalition, said that is where they belong.

"The juvenile justice system has a number of benefits, including individual assessments and screenings for mental health concerns or for history of trauma," Minden explained. "It also has a wider range of programming that can help them address some of those issues."

He pointed out adult incarceration can make 17-year-olds targets for sexual and physical violence. The coalition hopes the findings bring new life to plans to raise Wisconsin's age to 18.

Gov. Tony Evers had the change in his budget proposal, but it did not make the final spending plan amid concerns it was too much a policy issue. Minden noted previous bills have had bipartisan support.

Some previous discussion in Wisconsin centered around shifting more costs to local agencies.

Marcy Mistrett, senior fellow at The Sentencing Project and the report's author, said their report shows it has not been a major problem in other states.

"States that raised the age overall did not need to build new facilities," Mistrett reported. "And even those that initially built extra were able to close them down after a couple years."

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections said only 3% of 17-year-olds in the state are arrested for violent crimes.

Minden asserted it shows the state shouldn't be doling out life-altering punishments over mostly minor indiscretions.

"For all those other kids, they should be able to get the benefits that the juvenile system provides," Minden argued. "While still allowing pathways for judges to move up 17-year-olds as a part of that 3% that might be better served, or be held accountable, in the adult system."

Coalition members, including the ACLU, point to national research, which showed teens are 34 times more likely to re-offend if tried as an adult.