By Rev. Edward Pinkney
The Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration, representing 56 organizations and over 300 individuals, strongly supports legislation to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18 and to remove youth from adult facilities. Michigan is one of only seven remaining states automatically prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults for any offense. Most 17-year-olds in the adult system have been convicted of non-violent offenses and never had a juvenile record. This antiquated practice is contrary to research that indicates it is exceptionally harmful to youth and directly threatens public safety. In order to reduce reoffending rates, reduce corrections costs, and align with national standards, it is imperative that Michigan raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18.
In nearly all aspects of law, Michigan recognizes 18 as the age of adulthood. Seventeen-year-olds cannot vote, legally sign a contract, drop out of school, rent a hotel room, or purchase tobacco, fireworks or lottery tickets. Seventeen-year-olds are considered children whom the State’s child welfare system must protect from abuse and neglect. Yet if caught in the legal system for any reason, 17-year-olds must be prosecuted, convicted and sentenced as adults in Michigan’s criminal courts.
Prosecuting youth in the adult system is harmful and threatens public safety. Most 17-year-olds in the court system are held in adult jails and prisons where they are at imminent risk of physical and sexual violence, restraints, solitary confinement and suicide. Without access to age appropriate services, young people exiting adult prison are 34% more likely to reoffend and commit a violent crime compared to their peers in the juvenile justice system. An adult conviction also has lifelong consequences, including barriers to education, employment and housing. A young person convicted in Michigan’s adult system can expect to earn 40% less over his/her lifetime, which translates to a loss of state tax revenue and an increased risk of future incarceration.
Research confirms that 17-year-olds are not adults. As part of normal development, they are more likely to take risks, act impulsively, and are highly susceptible to the negative influences of their peers. Though these age-related factors may contribute to youthful mistakes, 17-year-olds are prohibited from accessing youth-focused treatment found only in the juvenile system.
Several states have recently increased the age of juvenile jurisdiction, citing research, public safety and cost-savings as the reasons for the change. These states reported little to no cost impact mostly due to supporting effective diversion and community-based treatment options. In fact, they expect a long-term cost saving, estimating that by including 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, three dollars will be saved for one dollar spent!
Now is the time for Michigan to join the 43 other states already recognizing that 17-year-olds who come into contact with the justice system are still children.
America is beginning to look more and more like Nazi Germany. There are two to three million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons, 820,000 individuals are on parole, and three million individuals are on probation. The USA has 25% of the world’s prison population and only five percent of the world’s population!
The scales of justice are unbalanced, especially against the poor and people of color. We must continue to fight this grave imbalance to ensure a humane and just future for everyone. We must confront the establishment, the oppressor of the American people. We must confront the system.