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Juvenile Justice System Reform in Michigan

Currently, the Michigan House of Representatives is considering a package of bills aimed at reforming its juvenile justice system. This enthusiasm for reform was reignited due to public outcry concerning the alleged sexual and physical assaults of juvenile offenders who were being housed in adult prison facilities.

The juvenile justice system is a separate court system, traditionally focused on the rehabilitation of the juvenile offender rather than punishment. This goal reflects research that suggests that the frontal lobe of the brain does not fully develop until a person's mid- to late-twenties. The frontal lobe is the portion of the brain responsible for empathy, judgment, impulse control, and decision-making. This research helps to explain why younger people tend to make rash decisions and can be easily influenced by peers and addictive substances. These characteristics can sometimes lead young people to become involved in the criminal justice system. When they do, the juvenile justice system is specially designed to take into account their age and related immaturity and capacity for change.

Currently, Michigan is one of only a few states wherein persons seventeen or older are automatically charged as adults rather than as juveniles. In most states, the age at which a person is automatically charged as an adult is eighteen. Changing Michigan's age of adult sentencing to eighteen or older is one of the amendments proposed by the House bill package.

Another important proposal for change is eliminating the practice of housing juvenile offenders in adult correctional facilities instead of juvenile housing centers. Without proper supervision, this housing arrangement exposes juvenile offenders to physical harm by adult offenders. Even if physical harm does not occur, juvenile offenders who are housed in adult correctional facilities are 34% more likely to reoffend and tend to escalate to more violent crimes. The exposure of impressionable young people to more seasoned adult criminals is likely to blame for this heightened rate of recidivism. The current bill package, if passed, would prohibit any offender under the age of eighteen from being housed at an adult correctional facility.

Supporters of the bill package say that it would result in lower costs for the Department of Corrections; others claim that the bills would result in higher costs for individual counties. Similarly, while some applaud changing the law to allow seventeen year olds to be charged as juveniles rather than adults, others do not approve of the age increase. Overall, the bill package has wide support, but faces a crowded legislative schedule at the close of the year.

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