The latest step in the tragic case in which two 12-year old girls were charged with stabbing a classmate multiple times to please the fictional “Slenderman” character was taken on Aug. 10 when a Waukesha County judge determined that the case should be kept in adult court. The seriousness of the offense and concerns for the victim in this case are indisputable.
But, what is also indisputable is that the Wisconsin statutes created in the 1990s that forced this case into adult court is out of touch with everything that has been learned in the last decade about brain science, diagnosed mental illness and the effectiveness of the juvenile system to meet the needs of these young girls while also furthering the goal of ensuring safe communities for our children.
If we have learned anything, it is that the things that often make a youth’s behavior hard to understand is also what makes it the right time to be optimistic about their ability to adapt and change. Absent this knowledge, the statutes and process that push children into the punitive adult courts are largely informed by fear and a reliance on the notion that punishment and incarceration is somehow equal to achieving justice.
The truth is that kids are different from adults. It is the reason the juvenile court was created in the first place, and the reason it has been cited by the Supreme Court four times in the past decade as the justification for treating children in the criminal justice system differently from their adult counterparts. It is also the reason that in poll after poll, the American public reaffirms their belief that children should be held accountable but in age-appropriate ways with a focus on rehabilitation.
Furthermore, long-term community safety is not well-served, as research has shown that youth convicted as adults are 34 percent more likely to recidivate than those kept in the juvenile system, and for more serious offenses.
Since being arrested at age 12, these girls have already spent almost 10 percent of their life locked up pending trial. Reports that they are responding to treatment, as limited as it has been, suggest there is every reason to believe that spending another five to six years (essentially one-third of their life) in a juvenile facility and/or under careful supervision in the community will be successful in protecting the community and helping them become contributing members of our community.
In the adult system, any progress made in this regard will be set back by eventual confinement in an adult facility. Even when they are released, they will have on their record a conviction that will prevent them from getting federal aid for higher education, serving in the military or working in a multitude of careers that exclude felons.
In many ways Wisconsin remains an outlier in its lack of reforms for this young population. It is one of only nine states that sets the age of adult criminal responsibility to begin for kids younger than 18 and is in the minority of states that allow children under the age of 13 to be tried as adults. Filing charges directly in adult court, especially for children this young, is contrary to the process in many states where the case is filed in juvenile court, then a decision to transfer the case to adult court is made by a judge and based on the case’s individual circumstances.
This would be an easy fix for Wisconsin that would be better for everyone, including the community. Nationally, we need to take note that approximately 200,000 youth under age 18 are treated as adults, some as young as these girls or even younger.
We believe that treating kids as adults, especially kids at this age, based solely on the nature of their offense amounts to justice for no one. This case is far from over. There has been harm caused to the victim and her family and in some ways to the community that should not be discounted. But, is justice really served by the decisions of the court? We think not.
Jim Moeser is deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families, which is a multi-issue policy research and advocacy organization promoting statewide policies that promote a safe and healthy future for all children in Wisconsin.
Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, which is a national organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
More stories related to this one: