Try 17-year-olds as juveniles, report suggests

By LAURA BOHANNON

Capital News Service

LANSING — Raising the age of juvenile offenders by a year could reduce crime, cost little, and lead to better lives for thousands of young people, a recent report concludes.

In Michigan, 17-year-olds can be tried as adults in court. Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute Executive Director Marc Schindler said placing juveniles in adult detention centers can create problems, like kids committing more serious crimes more often after being incarcerated with adults.

Seven other states have recently raised the age for juveniles to be tried as adults to 18, and Schindler said those states have seen some benefits already.

Kids incarcerated in juvenile centers are less likely to continue committing crimes when they’re released, unlike kids incarcerated with adults, Schindler said.

Michigan is one of only seven states that automatically place 16- or 17-year-olds under adult jurisdiction, according to the Justice Policy Institute report.

The institute’s research shows that incarcerated kids are better off in juvenile centers than in adult facilities because juvenile centers are equipped with the appropriate resources to rehabilitate juvenile offenders, Schindler said.

“When they come out of adult facilities, they’re more likely to commit more crimes,” Schindler said.

While some people may see raising the age of kids tried as adults to 18 as a no-brainer decision, others see both sides of the argument.

Professor Charlie Mesloh, the Criminal Justice Department head at Northern Michigan University, said, “I’m not sure what I think” about raising the age for juveniles to be charged as adults.

Juvenile offenders should be looked at on a case-by-case basis, Mesloh said — especially when it comes to physically big kids being mixed up with kids as young as 12, and physically small kids being placed in adult facilities.

“Everybody thinks they want one thing until the circumstances don’t fit the narrative they want,” Mesloh said.

Trying to write legislation to raise the age could be complicated, Mesloh said. Lawmakers would need to define what a violent crime is if that were the benchmark for being tried as an adult.

But Schindler said the advantages of raising the juvenile age outweigh the problems.

One argument against trying 17-year-olds as juveniles, Schindler said, is that it would cost more to hire additional staff and build new facilities to house them.

In the states his group studied, there was concern that it would be very expensive to shift kids into juvenile court,” Schindler said.

But “those were overestimates,” he said. “Each of those states have had insignificant increases in costs. They haven’t been budget-busters.”

The Justice Policy Institute’s report said that in Connecticut, “The projected $100 million in increased costs from raising the age never occurred, and $39 million was reallocated to community-based approaches.”

There were also concerns that crime would go up. The reverse happened, and juvenile crime has continued to fall in those seven states that raised the age, Schindler said.

In 2010, Illinois voted to raise the age of juveniles tried as adults to 18, and from 2009 to 2011 there were drops in juvenile crime, the institute’s study found. These drops included a 22 percent drop in juvenile justice incarceration and a 24 percent drop in youth arrests in Illinois, the report said.

Schindler said of the juveniles tried and convicted as adults, “a pretty significant percentage” of them are minor offenders.

Nearly 60 percent of 17-year-olds entering the criminal justice system were charged with nonviolent offenses, according to the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, said he thinks the decision of trying a juvenile as an adult should depend on the circumstances of the case.

If a 17-year-old committed a heinous crime against one of his three daughters, Cole said, he would want that person to be tried as an adult.

“How can you look another father in the eye and say, ‘I think this kid should be tried the same as a 12-year-old?'” he said.

Cole also wonders about the responsibility of parents or guardians of juvenile offenders. “How does that factor in?” he asked. “Maybe it doesn’t,” but somebody’s got to be held accountable for these crimes.