Michigan does not allow 17-year-olds to drop out of school, serve on a jury, vote in elections, live independently from their parent or guardian, purchase fireworks or rent a hotel room. However, the state does require all 17-year-olds to be charged as adults if arrested for any offense.
Michigan is one of only five states that treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, which harms not only those young people being jailed but also local communities and the state economy.
To address this problem, Michigan is considering a Youth in Prison legislative package that would include raising the age of criminal majority. This is critical juvenile justice reform legislation that should be passed without delay.
Allowing 17-year-olds to be included in the juvenile system would provide them with greater access to crucial educational and technical training. This leads to greater opportunities upon release and a better chance for them to grow into responsible, productive adults.
The juvenile court system focuses on rehabilitating its participants. Michigan juvenile facilities teach youth educational and vocational skills based on market demand. Using tailored education methods with the goal of post-incarceration employment in mind is something that benefits all juveniles, but would be most beneficial for older youth — including 17-year-olds.
Additionally, research has shown that employment can reduce the likelihood of recidivism for both youths and adults. However, if a young person has an adult criminal conviction on his or her record, that history can make finding work substantially more difficult. A more inclusive juvenile justice system can ensure that more young people are productively employed upon re-entry, thereby reducing recidivism rates.
Finally, Michigan’s juvenile justice system prepares incarcerated youth for a successful transition into adulthood by tailoring case plans that focus on an individual’s risk factors, needs and strengths. This allows 17-year-olds to access tools that are currently in place for detained children and gives them a better shot at becoming productive adult members of society upon their release.
The highest hurdle to overcome in passing raise-the-age legislation is cost. Opponents have voiced concerns over the potential costs of treating 17-year-olds as juveniles. However, research shows Michigan can expect both long-term economic savings and public safety benefits if this legislation is passed.
These results make sense. Although the initial costs of housing youths in juvenile facilities may be higher than housing them in adult prisons, a young person convicted in the adult system can expect to earn 40 percent less over his or her lifetime. In contrast, youth who were convicted of a crime but did not go to adult prison have almost as good a chance of finding a job as youths who had never committed a crime.
As the chair of the House Committee on Law and Justice, Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, carries the responsibility ofcalling for a committee hearing on the raise-the-age bill. In the past, Kesto has supported raise-the-age reform, arguing that the main focus of the system should be “keeping youths out of a dangerous adult prison population whenever safe and possible.” Now, he and other members of the state legislature are awaiting the results of a study commissioned to determine how much money it would cost to include 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system before taking further action.
Regardless, Kesto and fellow lawmakers should keep in mind that immediate implementation costs are not the be-all-end-all of the raise-the-age issue. Given the likely long-term benefits of creating a more inclusive juvenile justice system, Michigan cannot afford to wait to raise the age of criminal majority.
Image credit: Jan H Andersen