02/02/2008

Teens leaving prisons most likely to reoffend

The Associated Press

By TODD RICHMOND

MADISON, Wis. -- Young criminals coming out of Wisconsin's prisons are more likely to reoffend and end up back behind bars than their adult counterparts, according to a report released Friday.

A study by the state Legislative Audit Bureau found that 17-year-old offenders released from prison in 2002 and 2003 were reincarcerated at more than double the rate of adult offenders released those years. They were reincarcerated at nearly twice the rate of offenders released from juvenile institutions.

The report also found that less than half of the roughly 10,500 17-year-olds sentenced to probation between 2002 and 2006 completed it successfully.

The study highlights questions about whether 17-year-olds are too young to serve time in the adult prison system. The findings reflect national research that shows young offenders tend to reoffend when treated as adults, said Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.

"They have hit on an issue that isn't peculiar to Wisconsin," Bilchik said. "We're not getting outcomes that lead to greater public safety and we're not getting outcomes for a chance for a law-abiding, productive life for these kids."

During the 1990s, politicians across the country moved to lower the age at which their states considered an offender an adult as juvenile crime soared. Wisconsin is one of 10 states that automatically treat 17-year-olds as adults in criminal court.

But some states have reconsidered raising their threshold ages in light of research that indicates teenagers can't control their impulses. Connecticut, for example, plans to raise its age from 16 to 18 in 2010.

Lawmakers in Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York and North Carolina have debated legislation to raise their ages in the past two years, but the measures all failed, according to the Wisconsin study.

"This report confirms the need for legislation that would return these teenagers to the juvenile system, where they are much more likely to receive the services they need to help them get their lives back together," said Jill Jacklitz, leader of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

Wisconsin legislators introduced a bill to raise the age to 18 in 2005, but the measure failed after opponents complained that counties wouldn't be able to handle 17-year-olds in their juvenile justice budgets. The audit bureau report said the change could cost as much as $82 million.

State Department of Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch said the audit bureau used data from his agency that may have been more than a year old and that sample sizes of 17-year-olds were too small to draw any conclusions.

He also said every offender who needs rehabilitative treatment in prison is offered it, but not all accept.

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