In February, the Mackinac Center hosted two experts in juvenile justice at an Issues & Ideas Forum in Lansing. The event, titled “Raising the Age: Should 17-Year-Olds be Eligible for Juvenile Justice in Michigan?” focused on an important debate taking place in the state Legislature.
Michigan is one of only five states (the others being Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin) where 17-year-old offenders are not directed to the juvenile justice system. Instead, they are automatically prosecuted as and incarcerated with adults. Legislation has been introduced to transfer 17-year-olds to the Michigan juvenile justice system, but making this change may prove costly.
The guest speakers were Nila Bala of the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C., and Jason Smith of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency in Ann Arbor. Bala discussed why conservatives should care about juvenile justice. “If your conservative philosophy is built on three pillars of compassion, public safety and controlled government spending, then the right answer would be to raise the age of criminal responsibility,” she explained. Putting youth in the juvenile system means they will end up at far less risk of physical or emotional abuse, will enter adulthood with a clean slate and will be 37 percent less likely to reoffend.
Smith agreed. “The juvenile justice system does a far better job of connecting youth to other services and programs. I can attest to that as a former probation officer; I had a strong relationship with the community mental health provider, with the schools, with entire families.” He added that a recently completed study will help Michigan understand the cost of making the change. “Most stakeholders agree in concept with raising the age. … This is a really great opportunity to work on gathering quality data to inform policy and practice and using evidence-based risk assessments to drive treatment planning.”
Raising the age would still allow prosecutors to waive youth accused of very serious crimes into the adult system. But it’s time for Michigan to join the other 45 states in bringing the age of adult criminal liability in line with the other rights and responsibilities of legal adulthood.