• Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency

At What Age Should An Offender Be Considered Adult?

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At what age should a criminal defendant be considered an adult, facing trial in adult courts and, if convicted, sentenced to a prison with adult inmates?

Michigan is one of only seven states that still considers offenders to be adults at age 17.

Since 2007, seven other states -- Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- have increased the age of jurisdiction for adult courts to 18, according to a study released recently by the Justice Policy Institute. All other states already consider 18 to be the age of adulthood.

The report, "Raising the Age: Shifting to a Safer and More Effective Juvenile Justice System," showed concerns that juvenile justice systems would be overwhelmed and costs would skyrocket as a result of increasing the age of jurisdiction did not come true.

Quite the opposite, raising the age saves money, says Jason Smith, Juvenile Justice Policy Associate for the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.

"It always will be (a saving) in the long term because kids who participate in juvenile services are much less likely to enter the adult system later on," Smith explained. "So you are talking about long term savings to the adult system, long term savings to future crime victims, things like that. There is definitely a savings to the state. It would be for Michigan for moving youth from the adult system and adult facilities to the juvenile side."

There is an attempt to raise the age in Michigan. A 20-bill package which changed the age of jurisdiction from 17 to 18 and made other reforms to juvenile justice was approved with strong support in the House last term, but the legislation died for lack of action in the state Senate.

So far this year, however, similar legislation has not been reintroduced. Smith said lawmakers are awaiting a study by the Criminal Justice Policy Commission, which has contracted with the consulting firm Hornby Zeller and Associates, Inc., to study the impact of raising the age on state and county level governments.

"I can't say what it will look like once Michigan raises the age, if it will see the savings that some of the other states have had," Smith said. "Illinois raised the age and did not spend as much money as was estimated in their analysis and they closed facilities. I don't know if that will happen for us."

"But I do believe that now is the best time for us to pass this legislation and to make this happen. Juvenile caseloads are low. Juvenile detention (centers) over the last couple years have closed because of the low amount of youth entry into these facilities . . . This is now the best time to do this."

The "Raising the Age" report shows that over the past decade, half of the states that had previously excluded all 16- or 17-year-olds from juvenile court based solely on their age absorbed these young people into the youth justice system without significantly increasing taxpayer costs, and the number of youth in the adult system nationwide was nearly cut in half.

While there were dire predictions that states would be overwhelmed, by shifting to better practices, these states had better outcomes for the youngsters while saving taxpayer dollars.

Youth justice systems also managed the change by shifting to more cost-effective practices that are more likely to help a young person move past delinquency and reduce the chances a youth will reoffend, including reduced reliance on confinement, the report concluded.

Jason Ziedenberg, Research and Policy Director for the Justice Policy Institute, said recent research has shown in the last decade that the brain is not fully matured until someone comes into their 20s, which changes how they make decisions and how they weigh the consequences of their behavior.

He also noted that in every state that has raised its age, a youngster who commits a particularly heinous crime can still be placed in the adult system, if the courts agree. But that means the number of 17-year-olds who land in adult court is much lower.

"It is important to note," Smith said, "that the juvenile court does a good job of holding kids accountable for their actions and their crimes."

Ziedenberg said it has become a "truism" that the age of adulthood should be 18.

"Nobody is saying it is the right policy to put a 17-year-old into the adult system anymore, but if that is true, then why isn't this happening? What is the political reason that we can't follow the evidence? If it is an issue of cost, our report shows that in Illinois and Connecticut and Massachusetts, all the concerns about the juvenile justice system being overwhelmed and costs rising just didn't happen."

For the full article, see "At What Age Should An Offender Be Considered Adult?", Inside MIRS Today, April 7, 2017.

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