By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service
LANSING — Public policy advocates say it’s common sense to raise the age for a person to be tried in Michigan criminal courts as an adult from 17 to 18 years old.
The reason is, young people in adult prisons are at higher risk for sexual assault, restraint, solitary confinement and suicide, they say.
“We are a super-minority in the nation when it comes to the age of criminal responsibility for kids,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, the Kids Count project director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.
Placing them in juvenile facilities also gives them a better chance to rehabilitate, advocates say.
“In contrast, young people in the juvenile justice system have opportunities for education, rehabilitative programs and interventions that may help them to succeed,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, a national public interest law firm.
But county officials are unsure who will pay for the hundreds of 17-year-olds and younger in the adult system who would move to juvenile facilities.
Lowering the age would create a lot of changes to the juvenile justice system, and the counties could be unprepared for those changes, said Deena Bosworth, director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Association of Counties.
Currently, the state and the counties are responsible for the upkeep and care of prisons. Counties pay for juvenile facilities.
Bills passed the House in 2016 to raise the age from 17-years-old to 18-years-old but the Senate is waiting for a cost study commissioned by the Legislature before moving the bills.
The Association of Counties has been worried about the pending bills in the past for monetary reasons. County funding has been down since the 2008 recession, and the state is underfunding county programs, it says.
Furthermore, the association says the proposed legislation does not require the state to cover additional local costs.
Costs are expected to go up for counties but the actual amount is unknown and will depend on the results of the cost study that was commissioned by the Legislature, Bosworth said.
The cost study is expected to be released within months. The study will look to see if there are savings for treating 17-year-olds as adults.
Since potential costs are unknown, the impact on counties financially is unknown but rural and more northern counties could feel a larger burden, Bosworth said.
The Human Impact Partners, a national public policy research and advocacy group, studied juvenile facilities, adult facilities and community-based programming in Michigan. To house a youth in a juvenile facility costs nearly $179,000 a year while to house a youth in an adult facility it costs just over $40,000 per year.
The counties are worried they won’t be able to adequately fund the transition of prisoners from the adult system to the juvenile system and afford the higher costs of the juvenile system.
Advocates are adamant that the age for adult prisons needs to be raised. Michigan is one of only five states in which the age to be tried as an adult is not 18..
Kids who commit crimes need rehabilitation at a facility equipped to handle their developmental status and recognizes they are not adults, Guevara-Warren said.
“In other parts of our laws, 17-year-olds aren’t old enough to vote, they’re not legally old enough to drop out of school, they’re not old enough to buy fireworks,” Guevara Warren said.
Other reasons to raise the age stem from the more supportive treatment of young people in juvenile systems, which allows them to stay in touch with families and communities.
“It’s designed to help young people with their education and to provide treatment and rehabilitation,” Feierman said. “When the juvenile justice system is really working well, it is an intervention that helps young people. The criminal justice system just isn’t designed to fulfill those goals.”
The battle over raising the age, however, is not about the policy implications but over how to pay for it.
Feierman and Guevara Warren said states are recognizing the age raise is better policy and better financially in the long run.
“Youth prosecuted as adults earn 40 percent less over their lifetime than youth in the juvenile justice system which translates in a loss of state tax revenue and economic productivity,” Guevara Warren said.