Michigan produces more cars and cherries than any other state, but it can do better with the state’s most important product: its children.
Michigan is now just one of four states that automatically treats 17-year-olds as adults in the justice system, even for the lowest-level misdemeanors. Fortunately, legislation that was re-filed earlier this month with bipartisan support offers an opportunity to align Michigan with the best research and practice in nearly every other state.
Last year, Missouri lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to raise the age to bring 17-year-olds presumptively into the juvenile system. The charge was led by conservative lawmakers like Republican state Rep. Nick Schroer. This isn’t surprising, because raising the age advances the goals of limiting government, promoting family engagement, reducing recidivism and increasing employment.
When it comes to limiting government, bringing the full weight of the adult system down on juniors and seniors in high school, who are typically living with their parents, is like using a crane to lift a feather. To be sure, under the proposal in Michigan and the law in other states, 17-year-olds charged with the most serious offenses like murder or rape could still be certified as adults. However, more than 80 percent of the offenses for which 17 year-olds in Michigan are arrested are nonviolent, and 50 percent are misdemeanors.
The juvenile system provides the necessary accountability, but exerts a less punitive impact, such as high fines, in the adult system. It is unrealistic to expect 17-year-olds to pay court fees, probation fees, and other levies given that they are covered by Michigan’s compulsory law requiring them to attend high school.
As conservatives, we know that a strong family, not big government, is the foundation of a healthy society. However, when 17-year-olds are in the adult system, the parent is not entitled to notice of the proceedings and may not even be aware that their son or daughter has been arrested.
In contrast, the juvenile system works closely with both parents and school. Indeed, many of the most effective juvenile justice programs for youths with the highest needs involve regular home visits through which a juvenile probation officer and counselor can help the parent strengthen the bond with their child and set appropriate boundaries.
Indeed, reducing recidivism is critical, and the juvenile justice system has proven to be better equipped to do this. Studies from New York to Florida have found lower re-offense rates among comparable 17-year-olds processed in the juvenile system, as opposed to the adult system. This means fewer victims, and lower costs to taxpayers who pay for the revolving door of incarceration.
Still, skeptics worry about funding, given that juvenile probation and facilities for youths cost more than their adult counterparts. However, in states that have recently raised the age, total juvenile justice system costs have either gone down or been far less than forecast.
This is largely because juvenile systems, including those in Michigan, continue to shrink due to a secular trend of lower juvenile crime and fewer arrests, and have become more sophisticated in assessing kids to identifying the few that truly need a residential setting. The Justice Policy Institute found that, after Connecticut raised the age in 2007, the state’s total juvenile justice expenditures declined slightly.
Finally, raising the age promotes future employment. The stain of an adult criminal record can be a barrier not only to finding a job, but also to obtaining housing and student loans that facilitate employment. Given the current tight labor market and the aging of our society, we can ill afford to discard a segment of our future workforce.
Michigan has been a trailblazer on criminal justice reform. Now, Michigan can build on this track record by taking a new approach to 17-year-olds that will enhance public safety and human potential.