Opinion: Improve Michigan's youth justice system
Today, Michigan is one of a handful of states that treats all 17-year-olds as adults whenever they do something wrong in the eyes of the law. This means that although Michigan 17-year-olds are considered too young to vote or purchase a lottery ticket, they can be prosecuted as adults and thrown into an adult prison or jail.
But that may not be the case much longer. On the heels of work done last year, Michigan legislators stand poised to pass a package of legislation that would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Several states have passed raise-the-age legislation in recent years, and the estimated costs of the reform were larger than the actual costs. For the sake of 17-year-olds across the state, Michigan should follow suit while also ensuring that future raise-the-age implementation efforts are supported by a steady stream of funding.
Treating all 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system is good for neither youth nor Michiganians. The youth justice system was built with the needs of adolescents in mind, prioritizing individualized services, family involvement and positive youth development. It’s not surprising that some research suggests that youth placed in the adult system are more likely to commit further crimes than those who remain in the system intended for them.
Youth charged in the adult system will be saddled with an adult criminal record, which can forever hamper their employment prospects. This, in turn, can negatively affect their mental health — not to mention the local community when young people are unable to participate fully in the economy. For those truly wanting to promote rehabilitation, public safety and economic prosperity, raising the age of criminal responsibility should be an easy decision.
But raising the age is just step one toward ensuring better outcomes for youth and the state. Upon passing a raise-the-age package, lawmakers must maintain their commitment by fully funding any efforts needed to serve 17-year-olds in the youth justice system.
Fortunately, Michigan lawmakers are already on the right track. The House and Senate versions of the raise-the-age package offer two different funding mechanisms, and both ensure that counties and juvenile courts aren’t left hung out with their clothes to dry. However, the final package may also require future legislators to allocate this money to designated state funds in charge of fiscally supporting counties. Thus, Michigan lawmakers will need to show continued support for youth by putting their money where their mouths are during future appropriations dealings.
It’s long past time for Michigan to give 17-year-olds the same opportunities for rehabilitation as their peers. Michigan lawmakers should quickly work out the differences between the House and Senate raise-the-age packages, pass a compromise bill, and put it before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to sign. They should then continue to show their support by following the example of North Carolina and prioritizing any appropriations needed to support these reforms.
Upon taking these steps, lawmakers will finally give 17-year-old Michiganians the chance to be held accountable and provided services in the system built for them.
Emily Mooney is a criminal justice and civil liberties fellow at the R Street Institute.