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 research shows that many young offenders pose no long-term threats to society.
Still, the Wisconsin law's author stands by it, and even a professor who opposes such laws acknowledges that judges would send many of the most heinous juvenile cases to adult court anyway.
"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 Philadelphia's Juvenile Law Center.
The two girls told detectives that the attack was an attempt to please "Slenderman," a fictional character they discovered 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 in 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 these 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 prior arrests, was sent to a treatment center because the law then 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.
Ms. Ladwig still believes that 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.
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 criminology professor Nadine Connell of the 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," Ms. Connell said.
The girls told investigators that 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.