How Juvenile Justice Works in Michigan

A brief overview of legal proceedings involving youth

Michigan is one of only five states that automatically prosecute all 17-year-olds as adults. Legislation currently pending before the Michigan House of Representatives would raise the age of legal adulthood within the court system so that 17-year-olds are treated as minors. It is important to have a complete grasp of the distinctions between the adult and juvenile court systems when assessing this important legislation.

The Michigan court system views minors age 16 and younger as juveniles and treats them differently than adults when they are involved in criminal proceedings. There is a family division within each state circuit court that is responsible for handling juvenile cases. Family court judges have more options to resolve a juvenile offense than do judges in a criminal case against an adult.

For example, a juvenile offender may be diverted from legal proceedings entirely. If his offense was relatively minor and he seems unlikely to re-offend, he may be required to pay a fine and be counseled and supervised for 30 to 90 days in lieu of prosecution. In that case, the court records are destroyed when the juvenile reaches age 17. If he doesn’t comply with the diversion program requirements, however, his case may return to the court for prosecution.

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Juvenile cases that are not diverted are placed on either a consent calendar or formal calendar. The consent calendar is an informal court monitoring program that is used in cases where the judge, prosecutor, juvenile and his parents agree that it is in the juvenile’s best interest to be kept out of the formal justice system. The court develops a case plan to resolve the matter that initiated the legal proceedings, which includes components such as treatment and restitution to victims. If the juvenile successfully completes the case plan, the court will close the case and destroy the case records.

The formal calendar more closely resembles the process of prosecuting an adult offender. Juveniles may admit to or deny charges against them and have rights to a speedy trial, legal representation and a jury. Still, youth are not convicted the way adults are. Instead, the judge will make a “finding of responsibility,” in lieu of a finding of guilt, and a “disposition” in lieu of a sentence. The disposition may require the youth to be on probation, be subject to electric monitoring, participate in treatment or counseling, do community service, live at a juvenile facility in or out of state or be waived into the adult court system for additional proceedings.

Children who enter the justice system have a unique opportunity to receive individualized attention that may mean a difference between a successful, productive life and one marked by crime and the consequences of a criminal record. Lawmakers should give juvenile justice the careful consideration this topic deserves.

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