WASHINGTON (April 6, 2016) – In most states, individuals aren’t generally tried in criminal courts as adults until they reach age 18. A new R Street study from Policy Analyst Nathan Leamer examines the law in Michigan, one of nine states with a different approach, and considers both the ineffectiveness and unintended consequences of the state’s policy of automatically trying 17-year-olds as adults.

“Unlike in 41 other states, 17-year-olds in Michigan are not afforded a flexible approach and focus on rehabilitation. Instead, 17-year-olds exist in a strange legal limbo,” writes Leamer. “In every other aspect of their lives, they are treated as adolescents: required to attend school, subject to child-labor laws and driving restrictions, and unable to vote. However, these same children automatically are treated as adults by the criminal courts, no matter how minor or severe the offense.”

More than 20,000 Michigan youths have been convicted as adults since 2003; nearly 60 percent were nonviolent, first-time offenders. Though the state intended to reduce future crime rates with a “tough on crime” stance, the law has had the opposite effect in many regards.

The author notes research that demonstrates youths tried before an adult court were 85 percent more likely later to be rearrested for violent crimes and 44 percent more likely to be rearrested for felony property crimes compared to those tried before a juvenile court. Furthermore, youths tried as adults were 26 percent more likely to be re-incarcerated within the following six years.

A system that defaults to processing those under age 18 as juveniles would place the onus on the state to demonstrate why more severe treatment might be necessary. States like Connecticut, which implemented similar reforms, have seen dramatic benefits, according to Leamer.

“A 2010 report on the changes from the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance found that ‘savings can be demonstrated throughout the system.’ Savings in court costs, reduced rates of detention, improved clinical evaluations and lower recidivism all contributed to lower costs for the state,” Leamer writes.

“‘Raise the age” reforms would ensure juvenile offenders in Michigan retain access to resources designed to ensure they are quickly rehabilitated and reintegrated into society, recognizing that the end goal should be youth who “become taxpayers rather than burdens on taxpayers.”

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