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Senate panel passes bills to try 17-year-olds as juveniles in crimes

Senate panel

Update: Score one for bipartisanship: Michigan Dems, GOP pass ‘raise the age’ bills

Michigan is one of only four states that automatically treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. 

That would change under bipartisan bills that passed out of Senate committee Thursday morning and which are likely to be supported in both houses of the Legislature for the first time in years. The package would “raise the age” of which criminal defendants are considered adult from 17 to 18, bringing Michigan in line with most other states. 

“A child can make a mistake,” Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee chairman Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, told Bridge Thursday morning. “The services are available at 17 in the juvenile justice system. They are not in the adult system because it’s punitive in nature in the adult system, not corrective.”

Lucido said if the legislation passes, it is likely to reduce recidivism and, eventually, the amount the state spends on prisons. 

The legislation would: 

  • Make 17-year-olds charged with crimes go through family court rather than adult criminal court, allowing for more opportunities for alternative resolutions, such as monitoring and counseling and circumventing the traditional court process
  • Prevent 17-year-olds from being housed in the same cell as adults
  • Allow prosecutors to try people under age 17 as adults for certain violent offenses such as rape or murder with court approval
  • Not apply to 17-year-olds that have already been tried as adults (it wouldn’t be retroactive)
  • Take effect Oct. 1, 2021

The Michigan League for Public Policy says that teens’ developing brains mean they’re more amenable to the kinds of rehabilitation programs exclusively offered in juvenile justice systems. Seventeen-year-olds prosecuted as adults are 34 percent more likely to re-offend and earn 40 percent less over their lifetime than their counterparts in the juvenile court system. 

About a third of juvenile cases in Michigan are diverted, which means they never actually enter the court system and the charge doesn’t follow them when they become an adult, according to a report by Human Impact Partners, a California-based research organization that advocates for social justice and public health issues. Instead, juvenile offenders may go to counseling, do community service or pay restitution to their victims. For those who are sent to juvenile detention centers, more rehabilitative and educational services are usually available than in adult prisons.

One change from previous versions of the legislation is the removal of a provision that would bar juvenile inmates from being housed in adult jails or prisons; the current bills simply require they not be housed in the same cell or transported in the same vehicles. Lawmakers and advocates have said it may be considered in future legislation, but that was divisive enough to hamper the current package’s chances.

The new bills (first introduced in the House) reflect a compromise after months of negotiations over the funding mechanism for housing and caring for 17-year-olds who would now be considered juveniles. Under the current proposal, the state will pay for 17-year-olds in the system for three years, when the funding method will be re-evaluated. The Senate version of the package — which will mirror the House version approved Thursday — is up for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. 

A different version of the proposals cleared a major hurdle earlier this year when they passed on the full Senate floor after years of the upper chamber shooting it down, indicating the new package is likely to find similar support. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office said Thursday they also supported the package. 

“In the Capitol, the wind blows all different directions,” Lucido said. But “ultimately, we’re on the same page. Let’s get this done.”

Dramatic developments in the state budget process have left strained relations between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. In the wake of those divisive negotiations, spokespeople for the GOP caucuses in the House and Senate noted the Raise the Age package was among the criminal justice issues discussed in the first meeting between the warring factions after the budget was signed. 

“The goal is to find the policy items that the people in that room could come together on and put some energy into and find areas for compromise and agreement versus focusing on areas where they have great disparity of opinion right now,” Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Shirkey, told Bridge Magazine last week. 

If the law passes, it would leave just Georgia, Wisconsin and Texas as states that view 17-year-olds as adults in the eyes of the law.

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