“When I was 17…it was a very good year…”
Frank Sinatra may have had a good one, but in my experience, 17 is a very stressful year. As a local high school teacher, I worked with about 1800 teenagers over the years, and I’ve seen many emotions come through my classroom door in that time.
Dozens of breakups, failed tests, family issues, broken friendships and health problems. Dozens of college rejections, substance abuse concerns and moments of self-loathing.
These 17-year-olds are not adults. They can’t vote or buy a lotto ticket or serve on a jury. But in our state, they are automatically tried as adults in our criminal justice system. Regardless of the crime.
Contrary to popular belief, teenagers aren’t all entitled, disconnected, SnapChatting narcissists. Not in my experience, anyway. They’re kids and they’re figuring out their world. As they do this, they make mistakes and bad choices. Lots of them. From cheating on a test to cheating on a boyfriend. From sharing a private text message to stealing a phone charger. Driving while drinking, selling pot, starting a fight. And they face real legal consequences—even lifelong—for a lot of these actions.
Kids should face consequences, but those consequences should be age-appropriate.
A major fight broke out recently at a Lansing area high school. Teachers know well what it’s like to come between kids who can’t control their anger. Remember, teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed, and the last part of our brains to fully form is the frontal lobe – the part that controls our judgment, impulses and emotions. That’s why kids need adult supervision, even at age 17. As the adult in the room, we’re there to help them take a breath and consider the consequences.
In that incident, there were 30 suspensions. Four students were arrested for fighting. And one girl was a 17-year-old who will be charged in adult court.
I don’t know her, but I suspect she didn’t leave for school that morning with the intention of disrupting her entire life; data shows that when kids are involved with crime, they’re more likely to be acting in the moment, without premeditation. This girl won’t have a chance to learn her lesson despite the fact that she’s legally a child. While her friends are worrying about the SAT, she’s facing a lifetime of consequences. Based on an impulsive action, she may carry an adult criminal record or even serve jail time. At 17.
You don’t need to be a teacher, a parent, or a public policy advocate to understand why Michigan should raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18. All you have to do is remember what it was like to be 17. Think of the things you did that you regret, things your parents, teachers or the police never found about. Then think about how different your life would be if you had ended up in the adult criminal justice system because of those mistakes.
But there’s something we can do. There’s a bipartisan package of bills to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18. The bills passed out of House committee this week, but the clock is ticking to get them passed before the end of lame duck. Time is running out, so please contact your state representatives and senators today.
17-year-olds are still learning. I know because I taught them. Let’s raise the age and do what we can to help kids learn from their mistakes, not pay for them for the rest of their lives. Dec 2, 2018 – Lansing State Journal