Leamer: Stop trying Michigan 17-year-olds as adults
In states across the nation, some bold Republican lawmakers are putting aside party affiliations and joining with Democratic colleagues in a bipartisan effort to reconsider previously accepted “tough on crime” approaches to criminal-justice policies.
With plenty of research and data at their disposal, policymakers are working alongside criminologists and economists to alleviate prison overcrowding, reduce high recidivism, and remedy state and local budget crunches.
But there is one glaring area where Michigan state law lags behind roughly 40 other states — the policy of automatically trying 17-year-olds in the adult court system.
Michigan is one of only nine states to make this arbitrary distinction, under which 17-year-olds are denied the opportunities afforded to other children in the juvenile court system. There are situations where a teenager should be tried as an adult for very serious crimes, but grouping teens with adults for every offense is simply bad policy from both a fiscal and public-safety perspective.
The Michigan House of Representatives recently passed a bipartisan legislative package to reform the current law. The law would raise the age at which individuals are tried automatically as adults from 17 to 18. The Republican-controlled Senate should follow suit and pass this essential reform, and Gov. Rick Snyder should sign it into law. This improves public safety while also saving taxpayers money.
Despite some misconceptions, nearly 60 percent of juveniles in the adult criminal system were convicted of nonviolent crimes that did not involve a weapon. What’s more, 58 percent of those entering the system at age 17 had no prior juvenile criminal record.
Youth prosecuted in adult court are significantly more likely to recidivate than their counterparts in the juvenile-justice system. And children incarcerated in the adult system are, on average, 34 percent more likely to be rearrested for a felony than youth who stay in the juvenile system. It isn’t surprising that being put in adult facilities creates a training ground for young criminals, rather than an environment conducive to rehabilitation. This leads to more victims, not fewer.
The juvenile court system steers delinquents into rehabilitation programs to address the root causes of criminality, while also allowing teenagers to continue their education. This helps to offer them a future when they ultimately re-enter society. These opportunities are not viable in the adult system, which forces many juveniles onto a path with little opportunity for self-improvement or job prospects.
Legislative reform also promises economic benefits to taxpayers and relief to cash-strapped state budgets. A 2012 University of Texas analysis found that Texas would save about $90 million a year by ending its practice of automatically trying 17-year-old offenders as adults. The taxpayers of Michigan might expect to see similar savings as well.
Rhode Island attempted to lower the age of adult jurisdiction from 18 to 17 in hopes of saving money, but found the change actually had the opposite effect. Lowering the age forced the state to spend more on 17-year-old offenders than it previously had.
There is no silver bullet to ensure public safety, but raising the age to try individuals in an adult court holds the promise of rehabilitation for juvenile offenders. These benefits will translate into lower levels of public spending, less crime, and stronger families.
Nathan Leamer is a policy analyst and the outreach manager for the R Street Institute.