MILWAUKEE -- When two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls were charged this week with stabbing a friend nearly to death, authorities had no choice but to send them to adult court.
In more than half of the nation, kids as young as 10 are often charged as adults automatically using laws intended to crack down on gangs and guns. But the practice has been widely questioned by juvenile-crime experts, who say that research shows many young offenders pose no long-term threats to society.
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Still, the author of Wisconsin's law stands by it, and even a professor who opposes the laws acknowledges that many of the most heinous juvenile cases would be sent to adult court anyway by judges.
"What adolescent development has shown is that even expert psychologists can't differentiate between the kids who are going to grow up and be repeat offenders, which is the exception, and kids who will outgrow their behaviors," said Emily Keller, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
The two girls told detectives the attack was an attempt to please Slenderman, a fictional character they found on a horror website. If convicted, they could be locked up for 65 years. The victim remained hospitalized Wednesday.
Wisconsin is one of the toughest states when it comes to punishing children the same as adults. A 1995 state law requires prosecutors to file adult charges in homicide or attempted homicide cases if the child is at least 10. Twenty-eight other states have similar laws, although their minimum age is no younger than 13.
Many of the laws date back to the 1980s and '90s, when public fears were stoked by an increase in juvenile crime and a Princeton researcher's prediction that the nation could fall prey to a generation of "super predators," violent youngsters from broken families who acted without fear or remorse.
The laws marked a departure from a tradition that began when the nation's first juvenile court was established in 1899 in Chicago, with the goal of rehabilitating, rather than punishing, young offenders. Most juvenile justice systems today provide social services, mental health care, education and other programs to help children turn their lives around.
Decades later, the focus for especially violent juveniles shifted from rehabilitation to punishment amid reports about increased violence, gang activity and drug-related crimes. A 1991 shooting in Racine helped spur Wisconsin lawmakers to act. Two gang members recruited a boy who had just turned 11 to shoot a rival from the roof of a downtown recreation center.
The boy, who had 18 previous arrests, was sent to a treatment center because the law at the time did not allow anyone younger than 12 to face criminal charges.
Bonnie Ladwig, then a Republican representative from Mount Pleasant, helped write the new law, which lowered the minimum age to 10 and ensured that repeat offenders and children charged with the most serious crimes would face adult penalties.
Ladwig still believes it was "the right thing to do" and had no sympathy for the girls charged with stabbing their friend in a Waukesha park last weekend.
"Obviously these girls have been planning this since December so this wasn't just an accident," she said.
The key issue among criminologists today is whether some individuals are beyond rehabilitation.
"There are certainly ... individuals who seem to continue to offend regardless of any services that are offered," said Nadine Connell, a criminology professor at University of Texas at Dallas. "The real question is can we distinguish those individuals at a young age? I would say not very well."
There are no studies that begin at birth and follow people through life to determine who will commit crimes. Instead, researchers try to look back and figure out what events might have led to criminal behavior.
"But for every one of those predictors, there are plenty of people who also had those predictors and did not become a serious, violent criminal," Connell said.
The girls told investigators they planned the stabbing after reading stories on the Internet about a mysterious figure who terrorizes children. One said she was initially shocked by the idea but got excited about proving to others that Slenderman was real, according to a criminal complaint.
Her attorney has not commented on the case, but the other girl's attorney has said he believes she is mentally ill.
Children have more rights in adult criminal systems than in juvenile systems, where they are not always guaranteed attorneys, jury trials or convictions based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Connell said.
But, she said, children charged as adults can be ill-equipped to act in their own best interest. For example, the attorney for one of the Wisconsin girls said she was questioned without a parent or lawyer present, which is legal if she didn't ask for one.
Connell, who said she opposes mandatory adult charges for children, acknowledged that the Wisconsin case would probably have ended up in adult court anyway because judges have always been able to elevate especially severe crimes.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have eliminated the death penalty and mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders. One remaining issue is when lengthy sentences for children become the equivalent of life sentences, Keller said.
Wisconsin's law could keep the girls in prison until they are nearly 80, giving them no shot at a meaningful life. And, because education and other prison programs often give priority to those soonest to be released, a long sentence may mean a child receives no help or attention long into adulthood, Keller said.