Seventeen-year-olds in Michigan are not allowed to vote, enter into a legal contract, serve on a jury, or get married without a parent’s permission. When they commit a crime, however, they are considered adults by this state. In fact, current laws require 17-year-olds to be charged as adults if arrested, even for minor, non-violent offenses. Michigan is one of just five states that have this misguided policy.
Laws that automatically treat 17-year-olds as adults, enacted during a national “tough on crime” trend in the mid-1990s, do not serve our state well. These policies hamper efforts to help youth find a more productive path and tie the hands of prosecutors and judges. These laws also ignore differences between youths and adults — differences the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized — in brain development and decision-making. Because one’s ability to reason continues to develop into one’s mid-twenties, 17-year-olds are both “more inclined to take risks and act impulsively” and also “are more amendable to rehabilitative programs” than adults (Youth Behind Bars, 2014). Therefore, the juvenile justice system, especially in the cases of non-violent offenses, tends to be the better place for most kids.
Simply put, so-called “tough on crime” policies do not keep communities safer. Young adults who are placed into adult facilities and treated as adults are actually more likely to reoffend than if they receive age-appropriate services in the juvenile system (ibid, 2014). Current policies also place them at higher risk of experiencing sexual assault, violence and self-harm in the adult system.
A bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers have introduced “Raise the Age” legislation that would transform the way 17-year-olds are treated in the criminal justice system. The legislative package would allow 17-year-olds to remain in the juvenile justice system, unless a judge or prosecutor chooses in the most serious cases to charge them as an adult. The measures also establish the funding mechanism to help provide juvenile court services for 17-year-olds, provide prisoners under the age of 21 with age-appropriate programming and outdoor exercise, and create a Family Advisory Board to recommend policies for family reunification and re-entry after an offender’s release.
“Raise the Age” bills hold youth accountable for their negative actions but also help prevent youth from receiving a criminal record. This moves them toward a more productive path and widens future opportunities for education, employment and housing. The bills also allow 17-year-olds to receive age-appropriate rehabilitation services that would not be available to them in the adult system. Too many 17-year-olds exit adult prison without the help they need to re-enter society.
Juvenile courts, on the other hand, offer diversion and community-based programs, which allow kids to stay closer to home and to remain in their own schools. The juvenile system also offers families a greater role in the justice process. Parents are notified when a youth is tried for a crime and can be included in treatment decisions. This system seeks to promote healing and true rehabilitation after a crime has been committed, as reflected in the Catholic vision of restorative justice.
Investing in Michigan youth invests in Michigan’s communities. While there are expenses with enacting “Raise the Age” legislation, these reforms will produce benefits and cost-savings far into the future. By providing rehabilitative and support services, young people will find further opportunities to become contributing members of society, rather than become stuck in a revolving door to prison.
Instead of automatically treating 17-year-olds who commit crimes as adults, state policies can help correct behaviors. They can prioritize rehabilitation and safety within the justice system. And ultimately, policies can — and should — encourage young adults to create a better future for themselves. The “Raise the Age” package does just that.
Paul A. Long is president and CEO of the Michigan Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in this state.