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Michigan passed legislation this week that would make the state the latest to raise the age of adulthood in the criminal justice system from 17 to 18.
In Michigan, 17-year-olds can’t vote, buy cigarettes, or rent a car. But if caught by police driving while drunk or selling drugs, they are prosecuted not in juvenile court, but as adults.
Advocates for years have pushed to join other states in “raising the age” in Michigan’s criminal law to ensure that teenagers 17 and under end up in juvenile court, except when accused of the most serious crimes. Now, the Michigan legislature has passed a package of bills to make that change by October 1, 2021.
Proponents say the shift will ensure that young people who make mistakes are dealt with in a system geared toward rehabilitation and aren’t forever tarred with an adult conviction. But county officials say they have some concerns that the infrastructure changes required to accommodate more teens in the juvenile system will be expensive, and the legislation does not commit to specifics on funding.
Juvenile crime in Michigan has been steadily decreasing for the past decade, from a 2008 peak at over 23,000 arrests, to its current rate around 10,000. Still, Michigan is one of only four states that still defaults to trying 17-year-olds as adults, along with Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin. Many other states have recently passed laws raising the adult trial age to 18, and are now in the process of implementing those changes with their state court system and local justice departments.
Jason Smith, the director of youth justice policy at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, which has been pushing the Raise the Age measure in the state, noted that versions of this effort have failed numerous times in the past few years.
“The legislation has stalled because of concerns around cost,” Smith explained. “Other states who have passed Raise the Age bills have centralized systems that can easily shift money from the Department of Justice’s central budget to the juvenile system. But in Michigan, juvenile justice is very decentralized, and counties, along with judges, make decisions based on the resources of their region.”
One of the states with a centralized system is North Carolina. The state passed its own measure in 2017, and is in the process of implementing the law by the end of 2019. A unique feature of their bill was the establishment of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, which is responsible for planning the changes for the state.
Because the juvenile justice system is organized on the state level, as opposed to county by county, the committee has been able to produce extensive impact projections, said Diana Kees of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. “[We] shared the results of these studies with county stakeholders, including lawmakers, law enforcement, social services, school systems, and juvenile justice professionals, during a series of more than 30 town hall-style forums, specifically addressing the potential impact to each county,” she said. Feedback from the town halls informed the funding recommendations sent to the state legislature that would increase funding to the juvenile system by $50 million for the next fiscal year in order to cover transportation and education needs, operating costs for facilities, and administrative costs for training, among other considerations.
In Michigan, a 2018 report prepared for the legislature estimated changing the law would cost each county between $500,000 and $5.4 million. Smith, however, argued that the report used the expensive per diem costs from one of the state’s two high security facilities for estimates, despite the fact that few teens need that level of intervention.The report also used data from 2016, when arrest rates for juveniles were higher.
But one problem that Smith agreed with is that many counties don’t have good data when trying to figure out the cost of juvenile justice reforms. Smith said that some counties can explain exactly how many 17-year-olds will be affected by the policy change in their region, while others simply don’t have those figures.
Sheriff Michael Bouchard of Oakland County, located in an area outside of Detroit, is one of those that does not have the data on hand. The county facility that he oversees currently books 25,000 people per year, including 17 year-olds, many of whom arrive on overnight stays for drunk driving or joyriding. “Juvenile facilities may now see an influx of 17 year-olds, and they’re not really equipped for short-term stays,” he said.
That concern was echoed by Kathy Forzley, the director of Oakland County Health and Human Services, which oversees Children’s Village, the county’s main juvenile detention facility. “We don’t know what we’re looking at in terms of numbers right now,” Forzley said. “It’s difficult to know right now how many 17 year-olds are in jail or on probation, and without that estimate, we can’t properly assess whether our juvenile infrastructure is capable of receiving them.”
Forzley also said that they will have to evaluate whether 17 year-olds currently on probation in the adult system will need to receive treatment in the juvenile system instead.
Smith noted that this change will be a long process, and the counties will be an integral part of the package’s success. If signed into law, the bills will raise the age of adulthood in most criminal cases to 18 by 2021. The package, which passed the Republican-led House and Senate on Wednesday and Thursday, would also allow young people to keep convictions under 18 off their public record, provide trials and treatment for them in the family court system, and create a "Raise the Age Fund."
A spokesperson for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told the Associated Press the legislation is under review.
Though proponents struggled to gain support for the measures in previous sessions, Smith said that this time was different. “It was a lot more cooperative this time between the legislature, advocacy groups, the Association of Counties, the Probate Judges Association, and the Association of Family Court Administrators.”
Key to that cooperative process was Michigan State Sen. Pete Lucido, a Republican co-sponsor, who has been fighting to pass the bill for five and a half years. “As a prior criminal defense lawyer and probation officer, I’ve seen the impact of trying children as adults firsthand,” Lucido said. “If you go to trial in this state and you are 17, it is literally impossible for you to get a jury of your peers. Because with jury duty, and every other area of the law, 17-year-olds are still considered children.”
When asked about the long span to get the proposal through the state legislature, Lucido laughed. “I’ve tried capital cases that were easier than this. This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But Michigan needed this.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.