Michigan lawmakers should lose no more time giving 17-year-olds access to juvenile court

Michigan lawmakers should lose no more time giving 17-year-olds access to juvenile court
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Michigan is one of only five states that automatically prosecute all 17-year-old offenders as adults. Lawmakers introduced bills last year to raise the age of adult criminal liability to 18, but put the discussion on hold while a consulting firm conducted a cost study to determine the proposal’s financial impact. The study’s completion in early March has put the ball back in the legislature’s court. Although imperfect, the study can help policymakers with their efforts to enact the change, and Michigan should lose no time in joining the other states that have already done so.

Since 2007, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina have all raised the age of adult criminal liability, giving children under 18 access to the juvenile justice system. This means that young offenders’ parents are notified of their arrests and court proceedings, and families are included in a process that is fundamentally different from the adult system.

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Juvenile justice is not a get-out-of-jail free card — it does not absolve youth of responsibility for their actions. Instead, it focuses on rehabilitation, using a team-based model that includes judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, social workers or probation officers, and parents. It aims to keep children in school while addressing the underlying issue that landed them in court. Frequently, young offenders are placed into community service, treatment or counseling, unless a crime is so serious that it warrants adult prosecution. Importantly, juvenile offenders carry no criminal record into adulthood, improving their odds of obtaining housing, employment and advanced education.

 

Ample research has demonstrated that this approach is more effective than funneling youth through the adult system: Young offenders treated in the juvenile system are less likely to reoffend in the future, saving money and bolstering public safety. This is why the five remaining states that have not yet raised the age of adult prosecution — Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin — have all considered legislation to do so.

Raise the Age proposals before the Republican-controlled Michigan legislature enjoy support from prominent conservative groups in-state and nationally. Still, lawmakers paused their review of the bills to allow the research firm Hornby Zeller & Associates (HZA) to survey state trial courts to estimate the cost of making the change.

The resulting study is imperfect. State court judges raised concerns over the study’s methodology, and HZA cited a dearth of data that resulted in an imprecise cost projection of $26-61 million. Nevertheless, supporters like Jason SmithJason Thomas SmithOvernight Energy: Fewer than half of school districts test for lead | Dems slam proposed changes to Endangered Species Act | FEMA avoids climate change when discussing plan for future storms Millennial GOP lawmakers pleased with McMorris Rodgers meeting on party messaging House Republicans prepare to battle for leadership slots MORE of the Michigan Council for Crime and Delinquency say it is useful. Smith points out that the study provides policymakers with the opportunity to both revise the definition of a juvenile in Michigan and resolve issues related to funding the change and collecting data about its effect.

“None of the other states that have raised the age have spent as much as they initially projected they would, and some even ended up spending less after making the change than they had before” he points out. “Many of them also took the opportunity to make other needed changes that improved the administration of juvenile justice and helped keep the cost down.”

Smith sits on Michigan’s Raise the Age Funding Workgroup, a body convened by Rep. Martin Howrylak and Dorene Allen, a judge who heads the Michigan Probate Judges Association. The Workgroup is looking for ways to cover the annual costs of transferring responsibility for roughly 2,500 17-year-old offenders from adult to juvenile court. The vast majority of these children — over 80 percent — are charged with low-level offenses like truancy and minor in possession of alcohol, and HZA projects the youth crime rate will continue its downward trajectory in the coming years.

The change may require adjustments to Michigan’s unique funding structures. While the state bears the cost of administering adult criminal justice, counties bear the costs of juvenile justice programs. The state Department of Health and Human Services does help out; it reimburses some juvenile programs at a rate of 50 percent. Counties may face higher costs by the move to add 17-year-olds to the pool of juvenile offenders. But the change will bring more youth under the oversight of their local governments rather than the state.

With the cost study in hand, policymakers are now faced with important decisions regarding the future of Michigan’s youth. They should carefully consider the research and positive anecdotal data from other states alongside the study, and should take the long view of how to effectively administer youth justice rather than focus on short-term financial costs. This is an opportunity to give thousands of children a healthier, more productive future while making our communities safer and more financially secure. We should take it.  

Kahryn Riley (@KahrynRiley) directs the criminal justice reform initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market research institute in Midland, Michigan.