HOLLAND – As of this month, 17-year-olds who break the law in Ottawa and Allegan counties each year no longer face prosecutions and generally harsher sentences as adults .
The “Raise the Age” legislative package that ended Michigan’s practice of treating 17-year-olds as adults in its courts was enacted into state law in 2019, but the changes took effect. October 1, 2021.
The key for older adolescents who will now enter the juvenile system instead of the adult system is the rehabilitative and personalized approach of the juvenile system.
Community restorative service, cognitive behavioral therapy, and probation are typical provisions made by the juvenile system, which uses the term disposition instead of conviction.
“The main focus of family court is rehabilitation,” said Jolene Clearwater, director of family court probation for Allegan County. âEvery young person officially tried has a personalized treatment plan aimed at addressing the issues that led to the court’s intervention and preventing them from entering the adult system.
“While punitive measures certainly have their place when needed, the main goal is rehabilitation and prevention of further criminal activity. Most family court treatment plans involve the whole family, so that parents are part of the maintenance and treatment process. This can be a huge benefit, especially when family dysfunction is one of the factors that led to court intervention. “
Juvenile court programs recognize that adolescents have not fully matured and that their decision-making and emotional processing skills are not fully formed. Rather than being primarily punitive, court programs therefore seek to address the root causes of illegal behavior.
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âI think this is a very beneficial direction for the legal system,â said Todd Krygsheld, executive director of Escape Ministries. Escape Ministries offers after-school programs and alternative schooling for students suspended from school, about a third of whom are involved in the justice system, adults or minors.
âA healthy percentage of these students also face trauma,â Krygsheld said. “They may be 17 or 18, but they could operate on the brain development of a 10 to 12 year old child. I think it is beneficial for them to still be considered minors in terms of mental and emotional development, while being held accountable. “
Clearwater expects Allegan County Family Court to see an increase in caseload of about 20 to 25 cases with the change. With five juvenile probation officers on staff, Clearwater said the additional cases could be absorbed by their current staff levels.
In 2020, the Ottawa County Juvenile Court saw approximately 500 young people enter the juvenile justice system and a total of 655 new and reopened petitions in court. About 78 young people were placed on probation in 2020, up from 100 in 2018.
âIt was not uncommon to have 17 and 18 year olds in our system because they had started probation or one of our programs as a teenager,â said Thom Lattig, director of the system. Ottawa County Juvenile Justice. âWe were already ready to help these children. We were trying to determine if we needed more people, do we need more programs? “
Ottawa County has also not added staff to its juvenile division, although it expects a 25-30% increase in the number of cases with the change in law.
Lattig attributes this to the criminogenic risk and needs assessment tool used to screen children and adolescents as they enter the justice system. Screening determines what each young person needs to deal with the behavior and the circumstances that brought them into the justice system.
âWe felt like we could manage our resources as efficiently as we are now,â said Lattig. “We asked the county to let us see how the first year is going. You can look at all the data you want, but you really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
He also doesn’t expect pressure on the county juvenile detention center, again citing the assessment tool and the court’s practice of locking up as few young people as possible. Under the new law, 17-year-olds cannot be detained with adults. Instead, they are hosted with other minors.
âWe don’t want to detain the children too much,â Lattig said.
Dozens of pending Ottawa County cases against 17-year-olds, in which charges were laid before October 1 but the case has yet to be decided by a judge, could be reassigned to the system for minors, an ongoing process with prosecutors and judges reviewing each of these cases.
Allegan County, on the other hand, will deal with all pending cases involving 17-year-olds where offenses were committed before Oct. 1 as adult charges, Clearwater said.
Typically, local juvenile court staff support changing the law, which they say is supported by scientific findings about brain development.
âWe know that our 17, 18 and 19 year olds are not that different emotionally from the 15 and 16 year olds, so most of the programs we have are already designed to serve them,â Lattig said.
As brain development continues until the mid-1920s, there is no specific age for maturation, and some states are considering raising the age of criminal responsibility even further. Vermont, for example, passed a law allowing 19-year-olds to be prosecuted as minors.
In Michigan, prosecutors can still choose to charge a minor as an adult for serious offenses.
Barry County prosecutors this week indicted 17-year-old Patrick Gilmore of Hastings as an adult. Gilmore has been charged with murder in the death of another 17-year-old.
How might an influx of older teens change court programs and services?
âWe may need to help these 17-year-olds find housing, jobs or living conditions. How do we help these young people to reach adulthood? This is where I think we’ll spend most of our time reprogramming our systems.
The Juvenile Justice Institute, a school for children and adolescents who need an alternative to traditional schooling, has had older children up to the age of 18 and 19 before, Lattig said, so they feel equipped to do so. addressing the needs of older adolescents.
“Juvenile courts have wanted this for a long time,” Lattig said.
– Contact journalist Carolyn Muyskens at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @cjmuyskens.