Opinion | Michigan must stop charging 17-year-olds as adults

Alicia Guevara Warren is Kids Count in Michigan project director (at the Michigan League for Public Policy

My job requires me to take deep dives into data and research on kids and families in Michigan. I spend much of my time becoming intimately familiar with mostly troubling information on how our kids are doing. I am, however, occasionally given hope when our policymakers prioritize the needs of kids, such as reforming zero-tolerance school discipline policiesinvesting in child care and funding programs that help schools with high levels of poverty. But when I look at the data and the trends over time, I have to ask, “Are we doing enough to ensure that all of our kids can reach their full potential?”

Our 2018 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book was released on April 17 and helps us to answer this question. The report reviews data from 2010 to 2016 on 16 different measures of child well-being. The analysis does show us improvements in some areas. Our teen birth rate is down 33% and the number of students graduating from high school on time has also gotten better. But while child poverty rates have declined, more than 1 in 5 kids in Michigan still lives in poverty and many more live in families struggling to make ends meet. All in all, more than half of the 16 data measures have either worsened or stagnated statewide. I’ll also point out (again) that our state is in the bottom ten nationally on education outcomes.

The new report also shows us that we are leaving behind groups of kids and families, particularly kids of color and those who are living in families with low incomes. Due to policies and discrimination, racial disparities have been created and maintained over time. The data reveal higher numbers of kids of color living in poverty, and their parents also do not necessarily have access to the same job opportunities that pay higher wages—and the educational opportunities that help secure these types of jobs.

Policymakers have the power to prioritize policies that will help reduce disparities to make Michigan a place where all families thrive. While there are many policy changes needed through a comprehensive approach, one important strategy that is currently before the Legislature would be to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction. This is a bipartisan bill package that overwhelmingly passed the Michigan House of Representatives last session and is currently sitting in the House Committee on Law and Justice (chaired by Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township). Plus, recent polling shows that the public overwhelmingly supports raising the age and strongly disagrees with the current law.

Michigan remains one of only four states that automatically charges 17-year-old kids as adults in the criminal justice system, putting kids at greater risk of abuse and violence and hindering their chances at rehabilitation and a stable future. Youth of color are disproportionately impacted with the most recent data showing that 53% of 17-year-olds entering the state adult corrections system were kids of color while they only make up about 23% of the 17-year-old population in Michigan. Youth who are incarcerated lose about 5.5 months of educational hours per year compared to the average high school student. In addition to less access to education, youth charged as adults carry an adult criminal record, which creates enormous barriers to employment—and long-term financial security. This also impacts the potential of the state and local communities to generate revenue through taxes and businesses’ abilities to hire workers.

To answer the question I began with, the answer is, “no.” Michigan lawmakers can be doing more to help Michigan kids, and they have concrete legislation before them to do it. But time is running out, as the raise the age bills need to be passed before the 2018 session is over. The research and the data couldn’t be clearer: Kids and families fare better when they receive the support that they need. We know that children in the juvenile justice system receive age-appropriate treatment and have better outcomes than kids sent to the adult system. The governor and state legislators have the opportunity to change the lives and futures of our young people. We hope you’ll join us in calling on them to invest in our youth by raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Fri, 06/22/2018 - 7:48pm

Alicia Guevara Warren makes a lot of sense.
History is full of true stories where young people given a chance to pull themselves out of criminal circumstances have endeavored to become more than productive members of society.
The phrase Zero Tolerance is something that should be relegated to the dustbin.
As a nation we need to realize that each case needs to be looked at individually. Mandatory action only lets the populace off the hook emotionally and does little more than grow a feeling of an overarching government.
Those that fear a deep state should consider how easy it is to grow a bureaucracy from laws that would force the hand of the judiciary.

Sun, 06/24/2018 - 6:01am

I volunteer in a women’s prison. As one inmate told me, when young women enter the system they frequently become victims. They then learn to become victimizers. How can we do this to our children? No child, under 18, should ever be mandated to an adult prison. Where is our moral compass?

Sun, 06/24/2018 - 9:25am

Beyond the good points that Alicia makes on Michigan's 17-year age of criminal responsibility, there are other reasons that the dichotomy with 18-year-old "adulthood" status creates issues for parents, kids and the community.

Parents are legally responsible for their children until their 18th birthday. Children generally cannot enter into a legal contract until that age, nor can they rent an apartment, apply for a loan or credit card, buy a car from a car dealer, etc. That being said, the law throws a few obstacles in the path of parents.

First, at the age of 16, a child can legally decide to no longer go to school. The parents however have reduced leverage on the child to require them to continue his or her education. They can't force the child to move out and get his/her own place as a consequence of the his or her "lawful" decision to no longer go to school - they are still legally responsible for that child until he or she turns 18.

The 17-year age of criminal liability also creates a gray area for parental authority. 17-year-old kids are clearly "on their own" when they get in trouble with the law, but parents are still responsible for their kids for another year. Michigan law sends a mixed message to both parents and kids as to when, exactly, a child becomes an adult and parents no longer have any legal authority over the child.

Since parents are still saddled with legal responsibility for a child until he or she turns 18, it makes sense to synchronize the time when legal rights and responsibilities shift to the child. It is silly to tell kids that they are considered "adults" at the age of 17 (only for criminal behavior) yet continue to hold parents liable for everything else a child may do.

Kevin Grand
Sun, 06/24/2018 - 12:58pm

Has anyone noticed that Ms. Warren, along with those with like-minded views, ALWAYS ignore the victims of the crimes and focus solely on the criminals themselves?

What difference is it to the victim when the person who broke into their home is 17-years old or 27?

Or the person who assaulted them?

Or, even the person who killed them?

Not once in her piece above does she even empathize with the real victims here (the ones I mentioned above just in case anyone is unsure), nor recommend any ways to make their lives "normal" again.

She cannot, because to do so would totally negate the entire main argument of her piece: Make the criminal the "real" victim.

And if her main argument was correct, then how does she explain why people like Dr. Ben Carson, Kat Cole & Herman Cain succeeded in the same environment where Ms. Warren claims that it is not possible to do so?

Agnosticrat 2.0
Mon, 06/25/2018 - 5:33pm

Carson, Cole, and Cain were never charged as adults!
Point proven.
Next case please.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 06/25/2018 - 10:33pm

Read their bios.

Read Ms Warren's piece (because you obviously didn't do it already).

'Nuff said.

Sun, 06/24/2018 - 4:07pm

So what is magical that needs special consideration about 18 vs. 17, for that matter 19,20 and 21 .....? Isn't this just an argument about harsh prison sentencing in general? If this is your real aim and one should suspect it is, why not just say it instead of backing into it?

Suzanne Tiemstra
Sun, 06/24/2018 - 5:06pm

I agree that 17-year-olds should not be tried as adults. It is scientifically verified that the human brain is not fully mature at age 17, and people of that age are not able to think clearly about the consequences of their actions.

Sun, 06/24/2018 - 9:05pm

Comparing the percentage of kids doing anything to their respective percent of any population makes no sense. This says that all kids should behave equally, which is just not true. If that were the case, we would not see such a high percentage of Asian achievers. No, the percentage of some kids incarcerated is simply because those kids tend to commit more crime. Look at the murder rate of any area and compare that to Michigan as a whole minus that area and one sees that a few certain cities account for 7 times the rate of Michigan as a whole minus those cities. The main problem is some parents just do not care what their kids do. All kids deserve equal parenting. As for charging some kids as an adult, I say the seriousness of the crime can be considered, but in no way should a 17 year old who commits 1st or 2nd degree murder be let loose at 21 only because he/she was charged as a juvenile.

Mon, 06/25/2018 - 7:44pm

Exactly. The woman writing the article brags about knowing stats but ignorantly assumes everyone acts the same, commits the same amount of crime, etc? Changing the law and raising the age will do little to cut down on the massive amount of violence crime and murders committed in poorer black communities. Second chances should be given but prevention needs to be part of the equation. That's something race baiting articles leave out.

Mon, 06/25/2018 - 7:38pm

How about Asian youth? Are they of color? Why are they under represented in system? Do you realize that young black males commit the most murders in the U.S. year after year and a hugely disproportionate amount of rapes and other violent crimes? Did you purposely leave that out of the article or are you not that familiar with this topic? "Youth of color are disproportionately impacted with the most recent data showing that 53% of 17-year-olds entering the state adult corrections system were kids of color while they only make up about 23% of the 17-year-old population in Michigan. "

Jane Arbor
Mon, 06/25/2018 - 10:46pm

There needs to be consistency in how the age of adulthood is treated in the state--for voting, drinking and criminal offenses. From my own observations of my son and his young friends, 17-year-olds are in a period of hormonal and developmental insecurity and instability. It's a shame to mark them for the rest of their lives for mistakes made during this time. More should be spent on prevention and education than on court costs and incarceration.