Opinion: They're still kids: Don't prosecute 17-year-olds as adults
When Briana Moore was 17 years old, she got into a fight at the Oakland mall and was arrested and charged with an adult misdemeanor. As a result, Moore lost her job at McDonald’s and struggled to find success in the years following.
Her criminal record followed her for years afterward, including when she applied to Oakland University and a master's program at Wayne State University.
Moore is one of approximately 70 million Americans who have a criminal record. What makes her case particularly unique and troublesome is that despite her young age, she was prosecuted as an adult. This is a result of a Michigan law that automatically charges 17-year-olds as adults.
In testimony given to the Michigan Legislature last week, Moore asked, “At what point does the punishment end? Will I always be paying for the mistakes I made as a child?”
Moore’s question raises a critical issue that Michiganians must face. Michigan 17-year-olds cannot vote, serve on a jury, rent a car or join the military. They are minors in every sense of the law except one — the state continues to automatically charge 17-year-olds as adults.
No matter what the circumstances or how trivial the infraction, a 17-year-old in Michigan who commits a crime ends up with an adult criminal record, one that will follow them for the rest of their life. However, legislation currently pending in the state House Law and Justice Committee would change that policy so that 17-year-olds could be included in the juvenile system.
In her testimony, Moore identified the grave harms of placing children in the adult system. Doing so means these children will have a criminal record for the rest of their lives, making it very difficult to seek employment in the future. Their record can also impact their ability to obtain housing and student loans. Additionally, prison greatly increases the likelihood that a child will be exposed to sexual assault and physical abuse — and leave the system as a hardened criminal rather than as a rehabilitated member of society.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility would avoid the negative consequences of the current law. While there may be cases where certain 17-year-olds should be transferred to the adult system, the proposed legislation includes a “waiver” provision where the court could consider special cases.
Seventeen-year-olds are still maturing and developing their ability to reason, which makes them particularly amenable to rehabilitative programs. Indeed, unlike the adult system, the juvenile justice system allows these youth to receive age-appropriate services while staying connected with their family and community. In addition, when 17-year-olds are treated as minors, it guarantees parents the right to be involved in their child’s legal proceedings.
Thus far, Michigan has been unable to pass a bill that would raise the age, mainly because of worries about cost and a lack of political will. While cost is a valid concern, states that have passed such laws have ended up realizing savings in the long run — a fact that several advocates and committee members mentioned at the hearing.
Across the country, raise-the-age initiatives have successfully passed. As of July 2018, the Wolverine State is now one of only four states that consider 17-year-olds to be adults in the criminal justice system (Missouri raised the age earlier this year).
In addition, unlikely allies have joined together to call for raising the age of criminal responsibility. In June, the National Sheriffs’ Association issued a statement endorsing efforts to raise the age, finding the juvenile justice system better addressed the specific behavioral, developmental and mental health needs of youth.
The United Methodist Church of the Michigan area passed a resolution at its 2018 conference endorsing raise-the-age campaigns. The Michigan Catholic Conference has written in support of raise-the-age” legislation and was present at the hearing last week.
The hearing will continue this week to allow for more testimony, followed by a committee vote in the coming weeks. With the final days of the 2017-2018 Michigan legislative session upon us, these coming days present a rare opportunity to make a real difference youth this year – Michiganians should seize it.
Nila Bala is the associate director of criminal justice policy for the R Street Institute and former Baltimore public defender. C. Jarrett Dieterle is director of commercial freedom policy for R Street and a Michigan native.