In the course of proclaiming himself a "change agent" in a luncheon speech to members of the Rotary Club of Memphis on Tuesday, Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael did his best to justify such an appellation by advancing an innovative idea in relation to juvenile crime that has implications for other areas of social policy.
Basing his conclusions on what he said had been the findings of"science," Michael said that society's current thinking about incarcerating offenders, especially young ones, has been erroneous, pointing to the fact that in the last 40 years the number of youthful offenders undergoing various forms of lockup nationally has risen from 300,000 to 2.3 million.
The problem, he said, is that such a punitive response may conform to the hunches of the gut, but it isn't justified by science, and "I'll take science every time." What he suggests is that brain development in human beings has been found by study after study to be biologically incomplete at the age of 19 (the age at which, in Tennessee and various other jurisdictions, offenders can pass over from juvenile courts to adult tribunals and become eligible for hard time in prison). The age at which mental and emotional capacity can be said to have matured is 25, Michael argued, noting that the country's founders made that the minimum age for election to Congress and that car-rental companies also treat it as a threshold for their customers, seeing 25 as the time for reaching optimal potential in making judgments.
Below that age, you still have "kids," Michael said, and "it's in their contract to be stupid."
The vast majority of people currently being housed at the county's correctional center at 201 Poplar are not violent criminals, the judge said, but the young ones among them are at risk of becoming so if their brains are allowed to finish development in the company of hardened lawbreakers. Time, he said, is a central concern to the youthful offender and to those in society who would attempt to rehabilitate and guide them, as well. He cited such successful local efforts at rehabilitation as JIFF (Juvenile Intervention and Faith-based Follow-up) and Hope Academy, a public school that has reduced the rate of recidivism for the youthful offenders enrolled there to 8 percent (as against a national average of 58 percent!).
Michael has a concrete proposal to reform the current juvenile justice system in the form of a bill, currently on file in the state legislature, that would raise the age for processing offenders in adult court from 19 to 25. Give him that much extra time to deal with his youthful charges, he said, "and I will guarantee to turn about 90 percent of these kids around."
It was serious food for thought to Rotarians attending the luncheon, and at least one of them took Michael's thesis about age levels and brain development to a logical extension. The judge was asked: What does all of that say about the country's political system, which opens the voting rolls to people at the age of 18?
Judge Michael agreed: "That's a good question." But he passed on answering it.