Stop Putting Kids Behind Bars
Seventeen-year-olds are not adults. They cannot vote, buy cigarettes, purchase property or serve on a jury. However, in Michigan, if they commit a crime, they are automatically treated as adults. Saddled with an adult criminal record, formerly incarcerated youth face incredible hurdles to employment.
Michigan is currently one of just five states in the nation that adjudicate all 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. This policy means that kids end up in jail and in prison far too often. Once removed from high school, very few students ever return, significantly reducing the likelihood they will obtain a diploma or pursue a post-secondary credential.
Visitors to adult and juvenile facilities would be struck by how similar the children housed at each kind of facility are, as well as the stark differences in their future prospects. Youth in juvenile facilities are supervised by counseling professionals and teachers. They speak about their dreams for the future. Some of them hope to complete post-secondary education and pursue professional degrees, paths that would quite possibly be closed to them if they had been adjudicated as adults.
This is not the picture in adult facilities, where counseling staff and educational opportunities are sparse. The adult system, at its core, is not intended to counsel, educate or rehabilitate youth. The most recent data available from the U.S. Justice Department indicates that nearly 40 percent of adult jails do not provide any educational services, and only 7 percent provide services to help train young people for a job. Moreover, these statistics do not capture the availability, quality or relevance of programs that actually would prepare youth for the challenges of today’s economy.
Michigan educators, business leaders and public officials have been sounding the alarm about the state’s talent pipeline, as well they should. Employers today struggle to find job-ready workers. Michigan is an aging state preparing for a rash of retirements, and it is not developing or attracting the talent needed to sustain a growing economy. There is no silver bullet to the state’s talent shortage, but passage of legislation to “raise the age” would be a step in the right direction.
For several years, Gov. Rick Snyder and the state Legislature have promoted a “smart-on-crime” policy. The idea is simple: the vast majority of incarcerated individuals will come home to our communities, so let’s be sure that they return as assets and not liabilities. This means promoting policies that support effective rehabilitative practices and job preparedness.
The best path to achieve this outcome for 17-year-olds is to ensure they never enter the adult criminal justice system in the first place. While Michigan does not separately record recidivism rates for 17-year-olds, national research has found that youth exiting the adult system are 34 percent more likely to be rearrested than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. Simply put, national research suggests that Michigan’s current policy is better at preparing youth for a life of crime than for the workforce.
The proposed “raise the age” legislation is part of a bipartisan, 18-bill package. To be successful, this policy will require an investment in juvenile services. This is a critical investment in the workforce and the future, no different from other workforce programs championed by the state, like the Department of Corrections’ Vocational Village, a skilled trades training program for prisoners.
For a Legislature and governor who have continuously reaffirmed that the state's talent shortage is their top priority, this should be an easy decision. Keeping kids out of jail and prison means keeping them in school and in the workforce.
Nila Bala is a senior fellow in criminal justice policy at the R Street Institute. Sara McCauley is president of Strategic Policy Consultants.