‘Raise the Age’ Proposals Pending in Lansing

New legislation would stop automatically treating 17-year-olds as adults

Michigan is one of five states that treat 17-year-olds as adults in its criminal justice system. Legislative proposals pending in Lansing would change that. The bills would redefine “adult” to refer to people 18 years of age and older, bringing Michigan’s policies in line with most other states and federal laws that fix the age of legal adulthood at 18.

The Michigan House of Representatives has introduced 16 bills addressing juvenile offenders and youth in prison. It is well-documented that age-appropriate corrections policies are more effective at rehabilitating young adults. These bills aim to reduce misconduct among young offenders by giving 17-year-olds access to the more individualized penalties and by keeping them out of adult jails and prisons. Here are a few of the most notable proposals:

  • Michigan automatically prosecutes as adults all criminal defendants who were 17 or older at the time they committed a crime. HB 4607 would change this law so that 17-year-old criminal defendants would have their cases handled in the family division of circuit court instead, and eligibility for prosecution as an adult would begin at 18. Prosecutors would still be allowed to automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults for serious crimes.
  • A related bill, HB 4662, would raise the age of eligibility for diversion to include 17-year-olds. Diversion is a process that allows a law enforcement agency to keep minors out of court when they are apprehended for less serious offenses. Diverting a minor may mean simply returning him to his parents’ custody or having his family commit to working with a local agency to resolve the problem.
  • 17-year-olds are currently jailed and imprisoned with adults. HB 4744 would forbid detaining minors 17 years of age and younger in the same facility as adults. This measure would require counties to pay for appropriate placement (i.e. foster homes, child care or licensed juvenile facilities) for 17-year-olds, as they do for all other minors, if parental custody is not an option.
  • There are currently 18 crimes for which a minor will be automatically prosecuted as an adult. HB 4753 would alter that list. It would reclassify three offenses as crimes for which prosecutors are allowed, but not required, to treat minors as adults. These include escape or attempted escape from a high-security juvenile facility, bank or safe robbery, and the possession or delivery of more than 1,000 grams of illegal drugs.

These four bills have been referred to the Committee on Law and Justice, but have seen no action. Lawmakers would do well to carefully consider the potential benefits of raising the age of criminal responsibility to the age of 18. They can look to the experiences of other states that raised the age, such as North Carolina, which found the benefits outweighed the costs in the long-term. Specifically, the Vera Institute projected that a $70 million annual investment in juvenile justice would result in $123 million in reoccurring benefits to young offenders, victims and taxpayers, while reducing juvenile recidivism by 10 percent. Young offenders in the criminal justice system are at a crossroads; policies that might improve their odds of a successful, productive life merit special attention from lawmakers.

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