What’s the right age for someone to be considered as an adult, rather than a juvenile, in the court system? That’s what legislators are trying to find out as they examine proposals to change the definition of legal adulthood from 17 to 18.
The Criminal Justice Policy Commission, an official group that advises the Legislature on criminal justice matters, recently heard testimony from Midland County Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Dorene Allen and several others. The topic was a set of legislative proposals collectively referred to as “Raise the Age.” The proposals would change the definition of “adult” in Michigan’s criminal justice system to exclude 17-year-olds. (Prosecutors would still have the option to try them as adults for a variety of serious crimes.) Michigan is currently one of five states where 17-year-olds are automatically tried as adults and incarcerated with them, rather than having their cases handled in the juvenile justice system. But there isn’t enough information about how the juvenile justice system currently operates in Michigan to know what impact this reform would have.
This is the second year in which lawmakers have considered changing the age. Advocates and some legal experts like Allen say that 17-year-olds who are treated in the adult system end up worse than those who are treated in juvenile court. That is, they relapse into criminality sooner and more frequently than those whose cases are handled in juvenile courts. Juvenile courts in Michigan receive half their funding from the Department of Health and Human Services Child Care Fund, which is used for specialty programming, psychological exams and other services. This allows juvenile judges to take a more rehabilitative approach than judges in the adult system.
Allen, who became the president of the Probate Judges Association on Oct. 1, has lead that body’s work on juvenile justice for several years. She testified before the policy commission last week in favor of raising the age but noted that adding 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system would come at a cost. The Michigan Probate Judges Association has estimated that raising the age would cost courts 25 percent more than they are currently spending. The association opposed last year’s proposal on the grounds that the legislation did not appropriate enough money to successfully enact the reform.
Now that the reform proposal has been introduced again in 2017, the Legislature has told the advisory group to study it and estimate its costs for each court. The commission hired the Maine-based consulting firm Hornby Zeller to complete a study, starting with collecting data from counties. The study may already be off to a rocky start, however. Allen cited deficiencies in the survey it circulated to counties, such as the fact that it does not mention the Child Care Fund, a key income source for juvenile courts and a funding structure that is unique to Michigan. The survey also failed to define key terms such as “arrest” and “recidivism,” meaning that it may result in inconsistent or contradictory findings.
Sound, comprehensive data and data collection within the criminal justice system is notoriously absent or insufficient. Lawmakers and stakeholders need to find out how juvenile justice is administered at the county level. To do that, they must also call for a uniform system of collecting data about criminal activity, prosecution, and incarceration for both minors and adults. Bills such as Senate Bill 11, the Data Collection and Management Act, would make it quick and easy to compare statistics across counties and adult versus juvenile justice systems. As a result, officials could then draw the very insights that Hornby Zeller is now attempting to glean, such as which are the most effective juvenile justice practices and what costs and benefits they have.
While the outcome of the Raise-the-Age legislation is still unclear, one thing is certain: Neither this reform nor any other can be responsibly implemented without the data we need to understand how things currently stand.
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