Hall: We need to raise the age for juvenile justice to protect 17-year-old offenders

Many Michiganders, like myself, made mistakes when we were teenagers. I was fortunate that my missteps were handled by the Western Michigan University office of student conduct, and not the criminal justice system.

My experiences at WMU helped me learn to take responsibility for my actions, develop healthy stress management behaviors, and become a better person. When I graduated from WMU, I had developed the skills necessary to obtain gainful employment, show respect for the law, and contribute positively to my community. These experiences put me on the path to becoming an attorney and state representative for the people of Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties.

Unfortunately, not every teenager is as fortunate as I was.

Under current state law, every single 17-year-old accused of breaking the law must be charged as an adult and processed through the adult legal system. No exceptions are allowed, not even for the most minor offenses.

This policy leads to young, nonviolent offenders living among hardened adult felons in prison – a dangerous situation that hinders their ability to re-enter society and lead successful, productive lives. For those 17-year-olds who do not go to prison, they still will face difficulty finding jobs and suitable housing for many years to come.

Michigan is one of just four states where this law remains, despite a tremendous amount of research that shows placing 17-year-olds in adult prison hurts their psychological development.

I’m pleased to say that could soon change.

A bipartisan plan making its way through the Legislature would update the law and drastically improve the way 17-year-olds are treated in our criminal justice system. I am proud to say I voted for the plan when it passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The proposal would keep most 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system, allowing them to receive age-appropriate rehabilitation services not available in the adult prison system.

Modern brain science clearly shows that 17-year-olds do not think like adults because their brains are still developing. Teenagers are impulsive and less capable of focusing on the consequences of their behavior, making them more prone to mistakes.

Fortunately, teenagers also tend to be highly receptive to change because their brains are still developing. They respond well to rehabilitation and are more likely than adults to grow out of delinquent behavior.

The juvenile justice system is better equipped to educate, protect, and rehabilitate teenagers so they can grow into responsible and productive adults. For example, juvenile facilities offer critical educational and technical training opportunities for jobs that are in high demand.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, including 17-year-olds in the juvenile system has been shown to reduce re-offending by 34 percent.

As if helping Michigan teens straighten out their lives isn’t a good enough reason to make this change, it’s also expected to result in long-term savings for taxpayers. Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts have experienced millions of dollars in savings, decreases in the number of re-offending youth, and declines in judicial costs after raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18.

Over time, this reform will reduce recidivism rates, improve public safety, and free up taxpayer dollars currently spent on prisons for critical needs like roads and schools. Signing it into law will be a huge win for our state.

State Rep. Matt Hall, R-Emmett Township, represents residents in south and central Calhoun County and eastern Kalamazoo County. 

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