By: Jason Smith, Executive Director at Michigan Center for Youth Justice
Adolescence is frequently marked by impulsive actions, a propensity for taking risks, and a heightened influence of peers — traits that can sometimes lead to unlawful behavior. However, as young people mature, they typically grow out of such behaviors. This is referred to as "desistance", the process through which individuals reduce and eventually cease offending. Recognizing the differences between adolescents and adults, the U.S. Supreme Court has asserted that individuals under 18 should not be treated the same as adults in the criminal justice system. Michigan followed suit in 2019 by raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, reflecting the belief that young individuals should have the opportunity for rehabilitation rather than facing severe adult criminal penalties.
The decision to transfer a youth to the adult system, a process known as "waiving," is a complex one in Michigan. Courts must consider several factors, including the seriousness of the offense and the youth's prior record, which are often given more weight than other considerations. This emphasis can sometimes overshadow other important aspects of the case, compromising the potential for individualized review. Furthermore, this process doesn't adequately account for the fact that most adult facilities lack services appropriate for youth, a crucial factor in deciding whether to transfer a case.
The recently introduced House Bill 4633 seeks to ensure that courts take a more holistic view of a young person's circumstances, by expanding the mitigating factors that must be considered before deciding to try a youth as an adult.The proposed factors include the availability of rehabilitative programming in the juvenile justice system, the young person's developmental maturity, mental and emotional health, and the cultural traditions if they are a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe. Although the seriousness of the offense and the youth's prior record will still hold the greater weight, this expansion of mitigating factors will enable a more comprehensive evaluation of each individual case, and could potentially steer young people towards more rehabilitative and age-appropriate services.
In essence, House Bill (HB) 4633 offers a chance to improve the fairness and effectiveness of Michigan's juvenile justice system. By considering a young person's developmental maturity, mental health, and amenability to treatment, the justice system can better align with the reality of adolescent development and the principle of desistance. The goal is to nurture growth and positive change, ultimately leading to safer and healthier communities. To learn more about the issue of youth in the adult criminal justice system, click here.