CADILLAC — When an older teen breaks the law, how should they be punished? In prisons with the adults they so nearly are? Or in juvenile facilities, with people younger than them?
The question is once again being asked as legislation to “Raise the Age‘ was recently re-introduced in both chambers of Michigan’s legislature.
This time, local legislators Rep. Daire Rendon, R-Lake City, and Sen. Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington, are supporting bills that would end Michigan’s practice of treating 17-year-old offenders as adults in most circumstances.
Just a few months ago, similar legislation got close but ultimately didn’t make it through the lame duck session, meaning the bills had to be re-introduced.
“This year there is a different flavor in the legislation,‘ Rendon told the Cadillac News. Rendon is the sponsor of House Bill 4138 and a co-sponsor of other bills in the House’s Raise the Age package, HB 4133-4146. “We feel it is going to be more bipartisan.‘
Rendon was not involved in the last legislative effort to increase the age at which young offenders are considered adults. She became involved in Raise the Age legislation after the MiCares Task Force, which investigated the status of mental health care in Michigan, found that people with mental health issues often end up in correctional institutions and jails.
“Often times these kids end up in a terrible place and it’s because they’ve gone undiagnosed for a long period of time,‘ she told the Cadillac News. “Putting them in with hardcore criminals really does not have good outcomes for them.‘
On the Senate side, VanderWall is the sponsor of one of the bills in the Raise the Age package, SB 84. Other bills in the Senate package are SB 90-102.
“This bipartisan package of bills recognizes that adult justice should be applied to adults, not to kids,‘ VanderWall said in a statement. “The legislation will help ensure that youth receive appropriate punishment and that they have an opportunity to overcome their mistakes.‘
Two of the bills in the legislative packages are new compared to the last legislative Raise the Age push, according to Jason Smith, director of youth justice policy at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.
“The bills, (SB 102 and HB 4146), have mirroring language that would create a ‘Raise the Age Fund’ within the State Treasury, but would be administered by the Department of Health and Human Services,‘ Smith explained via email.
This is the first time Raise the Age legislation has been introduced in both chambers, Smith said.
“Raise the Age has been debated in the legislature more than four years now,‘ Smith said, noting that most Michiganders support the policy change. “It’s time to make this change, and positively impact the lives of thousands of Michigan’s youth.‘
Michigan is one of just four states that automatically processes 17-year-old offenders as adults.
While the Raise the Age proposal would raise the age to 18, prosecutors would still have some discretion, according to Rendon’s office. Minors accused of committing violent crimes could be waived into the adult system when appropriate.
Proponents of the policy change argue that it would be better for young people and better for the broader community if 17-year-olds were treated as juveniles in criminal matters.
Developmentally, 17-year-olds aren’t much different from 16-year-olds, Smith said. They’re still dependent on their parents and families and they respond to accountability measures differently than adults.
“They aren’t designed for kids,‘ Smith said, referring to adult correctional systems. Nationwide, courts have acknowledged this, he said.
Other states that treat 17-year-olds as juveniles have seen a decrease in repeat offenses, he said.
In part, that’s because the adult system can harden youth offenders. They’re more likely to be attacked or sexually assaulted in prison with adults, Smith said.
Exactly how many teens “Raise the Age‘ would affect locally wasn’t clear; prosecutors said they would need more time to get precise numbers. Wexford County Prosecutor Jason Elmore estimated it at less than 2 percent of the caseload. He stressed that the juvenile and adult court systems could not be directly compared; it’s not an “apples to apples‘ situation.
Just because somebody is prosecuted doesn’t mean they’ll be locked up.
“Confinement is not given in every criminal case. Detention is not given in every juvenile case,‘ Elmore noted by email.
Elmore also noted that adults don’t see their probation officers as often as juveniles do and that there are fewer probationary resources for adult cases.
Juveniles aren’t the only offenders that might be eligible for diversion programs meant to keep their criminal records clean, according to Elmore.
And clean criminal records matter, according to supporters of the legislation.
It’s harder to find a job with a criminal record, noted Tom Hickson, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the Michigan Catholic Conference.
“We think that puts them at a disadvantage for life,‘ Hickson said.
It’s also about equality for teens in Michigan versus neighbors like Ohio or Indiana.
“In Michigan, you get the special distinction of being able to go to jail when you’re 17,‘ Hickson said.
COSTS TO THE COUNTIES
Concerns about the financial expense of treating 17-year-olds as juveniles were major reasons Raise the Age legislation failed two previous attempts, according to Smith, the director of youth justice policy at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.
Some worried about how to implement the change without placing the financial burden on local counties.
“Counties would definitely see an increase in its costs if 17-year-olds were shifted to the juvenile system,‘ said Missaukee County Administrator Precia Garland, citing a Michigan Association of Counties report.
Missaukee County previously faced budget problems when child care costs exceeded expectations.
“Juveniles fall under the Child Care Fund, where there is a 50/50 split of costs between the state and counties. So, unless there is a provision by the state to make up the difference in cost this shift would create, it will produce an unfunded mandate, which is a violation of the Headlee Amendment,‘ Garland said.
Rep. Rendon told the Cadillac News she was aware of the concern and that she believes it is addressed in the multi-bill package.
According to a Cadillac News reading of the bill package, Rendon appeared to be referring to HB 4144, which would allow counties to choose between funding mechanisms. If passed, counties could opt for the state to pay for 100 percent of funding of child care costs for juveniles over the age of 17 but under the age of 18. Counties would continue to pay for 50 percent of child care costs for those under the age of 18.
Alternatively, counties could elect to receive 68 percent of child care costs from the state for all juveniles, including those between 17 and 18 years of age.
Additionally, one of the new additions to the bill packages, HB 4146 and SB 102 would provide temporary funding to help counties, according to Smith.
“As an attempt to address transition costs for the juvenile courts during the 2-year implementation period before 17-year-olds enter the juvenile justice system, the funds from the Raise the Age Fund could be expended to help prepare local jurisdictions to serve the additional youth,‘ Smith said.
There’s also reason to believe any stress to local budgets created by raising the age would be temporary.
Demographic changes could mean the burden to local counties will lessen over time. People have fewer children.
“You’ve got less and less kids, period, that are born each year,‘ Hickson noted.