Opinion: Don’t sentence 17-year-olds as adults

Isaiah McKinnon
Washtenaw County says 17-year-olds awaiting trial or a sentence for non-violent crimes will be housed in a juvenile detention facility, even if they’re charged as adults in local courts.

Over the 30 years I spent in Michigan law enforcement, including as chief of the Detroit Police Department, I watched too many young people get placed in a system that was never designed to accommodate them. The Michigan criminal justice system is one of only four in the country that considers 17-year-olds to be adults, which means they serve prison sentences in the adult system, a situation that benefits no one. Finally, the Michigan House and Senate have passed legislation to fix this problem. They need to reconcile their versions into one and get it on the governor’s desk without delay. 

Teens incarcerated in adult prisons are significantly less likely to earn a diploma or certification, limiting their ability to gain employment and re-adjust to society. This in turn drives the need to commit new crimes, with youths exiting the adult system being 34% more likely to re-offend and commit violent offenses than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system.

Beyond the long term effects of a criminal record on employment prospects, many teens suffer mental, physical and sexual abuse while in the adult prison system. We don’t want teens returning to our neighborhoods with new traumas or habits picked up from adult criminals. Warehousing children in dangerous settings is a cruel practice that exacerbates the issues these young people struggle with. In many circumstances, this reduces their chances of a healthy, successful life after prison. 

The truth is that many young people lack the resources or support needed to stay out of trouble. Developing minds with limited decision-making skills need direction from older, wiser adults such as counselors and teachers, who are available in juvenile facilities. Solid role models can help young people deal with the circumstances that lead to criminality and confrontation with law enforcement and put them on a better path. By contrast, if the only adults they’re exposed to are other inmates, they may not be learning the right lessons.

Fortunately, Michigan residents don’t have to settle for the current system guidelines. Lawmakers in Lansing have passed legislation to address this problem by raising the age from 17 to 18 for adult sentencing, while still holding youth accountable for their actions, as the vast majority of states in the U.S. have done. When they finalize their legislation and the governor signs it, we can help children avoid a lifetime of consequences that comes with adult criminal records and reduce the chance they re-offend. 

Chief Isaiah McKinnon has served a total of 50 years in public service, including 30 years with the Detroit Police Department and two years as Deputy Mayor of Detroit.