News Story

Costs At Issue For Raising Age On Adult Criminal Prosecution

'The benefits will far outweigh the short-term, upfront costs,' says one expert

State legislators are considering a package of bills that would cause Michigan’s criminal justice system to handle most cases involving 17-year-olds to be tried in juvenile courts, instead of adult courts.

Currently, when a 17-year-old is tried for a crime, law enforcement has no choice but to send the teen through the adult court system. A key part of the package lawmakers are considering is House Bill 4607, which would define those under 18 as juveniles, requiring that the cases involving 17-year-olds begin in the juvenile court system.

The bills would not stop prosecutors from being able to ask judges to try a 17-year-old in an adult court when the youth has been accused of a heinous crime such as premeditated murder or rape.

The bills are currently in the House Committee on Law and Justice.

Michigan is currently one of only five states – along with Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin – in which 17-year-olds are automatically tried in adult courts.

There are numerous differences between the juvenile and adult court systems. In the juvenile court system, parents are notified when a youth is tried for a crime, and they can be included in determining the best treatment method.

In the juvenile court system, many youths are “deferred” from a trial and instead are given community service or sent to get rehabilitation. Additionally, a youth’s criminal record is not transferred over to a “permanent” record when he is determined to be an adult, which is currently at age 17.

Jason Smith, director of youth justice policy for the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, has argued that since adult courts and prisons are designed for adults, they’re less equipped to deal with youth. Smith also told Michigan Capitol Confidential that adult jails and prisons can be more dangerous for 17-year-olds.

“Young people who are prosecuted, adjudicated and served in the juvenile justice system have better outcomes than youth in the adult system,” Smith said. “Raising the age and keeping as many kids as possible in the juvenile justice system will reduce re-offending, keep communities safer and lower juvenile justice system costs over time.”

The package of bills is causing concern among some county officials who wonder how much more money the juvenile criminal justice system will have to spend to accommodate the change.

Currently the state pays 100 percent of the costs of sending an adult to prison, while counties must take on the entire cost of detaining and rehabilitating youth. Counties can apply to have 50 percent of these costs reimbursed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. One of the bills under consideration, House Bill 4789, would defray some of the costs associated with raising the age.

A study recently presented to the Criminal Justice Policy Commission suggests that directing 17-year-olds to the juvenile court system would increase the number of people going through that system by 2,517 per year. The study estimates that this could cost counties an additional $16.9 million to $34.0 million per year and the state an additional $17.2 million to $26.9 million per year. The study was titled "The cost of raising the age of juvenile justice in Michigan" and was done by Hornby Zeller Associates Inc.

Some county probate court judges are calling the cost estimates too low. Those producing the study were unable to work with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which controls the Child Care Fund that reimburses counties for certain costs associated with youth detention and rehabilitation.

Smith said that when some other states have raised the age at which a youth is tried as an adult, the cost has been less than first projected.

“I think it’s time now that people get serious about raising the age and bring our young people into the juvenile justice system,” Smith said. “The benefits will far outweigh the short-term, upfront costs.”

The Michigan Association for Family Court Administration, which represents and advocates on behalf of family court administration in the state, said in a statement that it supports raising the age at which individuals are tried as adults “in principle as long as it is adequately and sustainably funded and resourced across the state.”