Michigan should not automatically prosecute 17 year-old as adults
For much of my twenty-five year career as a Michigan State Trooper, I agreed with those who argued for lowering the age at which minors could be prosecuted as adults. Then I started teaching high-school-age kids at a career center and my thinking changed. Getting to know these kids, I see young people who struggle with decision-making, peer pressure, lack of adult role models, lack of parental support, and a general lack of knowledge about the direction in which they are headed. They need direction, guidance, and advice by teachers, coaches, counselors, and other community resources. If instead we put 17-year-olds in the criminal justice system for non-violent crimes, we start them on a cycle from which many will never emerge.
Only four states automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults. Unfortunately, Michigan is one of them, and it does so regardless of the severity of the crime.
This public policy is not sustainable. It’s out-of-step with best practices, recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and Michigan law. On top of that, the punishment is cruel, discriminatory, and counter-productive. Approximately two-thirds of Michigan youth prosecuted as adults were convicted of non-violent offenses that did not include weapons.
Sending these kids to an adult prison—rather than to a juvenile facility—significantly reduces the likelihood they will obtain a diploma or certification. Many suffer severe mental and physical damage from the violence and sexual abuse endured while in the adult prison system.
The current policy has a strong negative impact on all Michiganders, as nearly all incarcerated individuals eventually come home to our communities. Keeping that in mind, it makes sense to ensure that these young people return as assets, not as liabilities. This means promoting and advancing policies that support effective, rehabilitative practices and job preparedness.
The best path to achieving this outcome for 17- year-olds is to ensure that they never enter the adult criminal justice system in the first place. National research shows that youth exiting the adult system are 34 percent more likely to re-offend, re-offend sooner, and escalate to more violent offenses than their counterparts exiting the juvenile justice system. Furthermore, Michigan’s impacted youth face an incredible hurdle to employment upon their release: an adult criminal record.
Simply put, the national research indicates that Michigan’s current policy is better at preparing youth for a life of crime than re-entering society. The current law misses the mark morally, ethically, and is not practical in its application.
The state legislature is currently considering a 10-bill package that fixes this problem while promoting public safety and holding youth accountable for their actions. I’m urging them to raise the age before the current legislative session expires in December. Concerned citizens should contact their state legislators and do the same.
Theodore “Ted” Nelson is a resident of Howard City. His 25-year career with the Michigan State Police included serving as a trooper in Detroit and investigating large-scale narcotic conspiracy cases. He also has 17 years experience teaching high school students at a career center. He is now a member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of police and other law enforcement trying to improve the criminal justice system. You can see his full bio here.