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Right on Crime | September 1, 2011
In July, Mississippi began restricting the process for charging 17-year-olds, by requiring that almost all juveniles under age 18 charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent felony be tried in juvenile courts. Violent felonies committed by juveniles still are permitted to be handled by the adult justice system.
This policy is facing opposition from those within the state who feel it will reduce effective treatment of juvenile offenders. In reality, however, Mississippi is joining 38 other states which include 17-year-olds in the class of those treated as juveniles—and which reap the benefits of such a classification.
The first benefit is that it is generally a better idea to minimize (or even avoid) incarceration for misdemeanors and minor non-violent felonies. Costly jail cells should be reserved for those who pose a risk of violence to the public. Sending 17-year-olds guilty of minor crimes to juvenile courts, where they are more likely to receive probation or non-residential treatment, will reduce unnecessary criminal justice costs without jeopardizing public safety.
Secondly, 17-year-olds are still amenable to reform and rehabilitation in the way that younger juveniles are—and to a greater degree than adult offenders. Juvenile courts are the best option for recognizing reform methods applicable to each juvenile offender and ensuring comprehensive, successful treatment. These options are far more accessible to juvenile courts, and they increase the likelihood that a 17-year-old offender may become a law-abiding, productive citizen in the future.
Finally, dangerous juveniles—including 17-year-olds—still can be processed through the adult court system where the punishment is tailored to their crime and public safety can be enhanced by incarcerating those who pose a threat to their communities.
Overall, putting 17-year-olds in juvenile court has the potential to save Mississippi money, boost positive outcomes for these offenders, and ensure public safety is still a priority.