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Raising the Age Maximum for Juvenile Justice System

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.

In Michigan, the juvenile justice system is limited only to young people sixteen years old or younger. If the offender is seventeen years old, the offender is automatically charged as an adult. Michigan is one of only nine states that automatically charge seventeen year olds as adults, excluding them from the rehabilitative focus of the juvenile justice system. This typically means that a seventeen year old--typically, a senior or junior in high school--may receive a criminal record impacting employment and education opportunities before he has even held a full-time job. He will not be able to take advantage of the intense oversight and supervision of the juvenile court, which often includes counseling, drug treatment, and the involvement of parents or guardians.

In addition to arguing that the juvenile justice system is the proper venue for these young people due to its rehabilitative purposes, some argue that it simply does not make sense to treat seventeen year olds as adults in criminal law, but as less capable in other facets of the law. For example, a seventeen year old must receive a parent's permission for tattoos and certain piercings because of a perceived lack of mental capability to make such a decision--but yet, when a seventeen year old commits a crime, he is punished on the same level of mental capability as an adult.

The Michigan House of Representatives is currently considering a package of bills aimed at reforming Michigan's juvenile justice system. Among the reforms suggested is one raising the age of automatic adult sentencing from seventeen to eighteen years old. This would mean that cases involving seventeen year olds would not be automatically moved to the general justice system. Instead, seventeen year olds could take advantage of the benefits that the juvenile justice system offers. The reforms would not affect waiver laws that allow for such a case to be transferred to the general justice system for particularly egregious crimes or incorrigible offenders.

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