Lawmakers who want Michigan to no longer automatically try 17-year-olds as adults are pointing to its outlier status as among the reasons to pass bipartisan bills to “raise the age.”
Michigan is among just four states whose default is to treat 17-year-olds as adults in criminal proceedings. In the past decade, nine states have enacted laws to increase the age for adult offenders to 18 — signifying a growing consensus that 17-year-olds are better off in the juvenile justice system.
“Other states have done this. If 46 other states can do it, then why in the hell can’t we?” Sen. Peter Lucido, a Republican from Macomb County’s Shelby Township, said this past week as senators from both parties unveiled a 14-bill package . Legislation also was recently proposed in the House , where majority Republicans say it will be a top priority this term.
Similar plans died in the last two legislative sessions — primarily because of pushback from counties, prosecutors and others with concerns about the potential cost — but supporters say Michigan must act.
Sen. Sylvia Santana, a Detroit Democrat, said the minimum age to vote and sign a contract is 18, yet 17-year-old offenders are treated as adults. The bills, she said, would make sure “our juveniles are protected and that they have a future and an opportunity.”
Backers say 17-year-olds could still be sentenced as adults in violent felony cases. The state Department of Corrections would be prohibited from incarcerating those offenders with adult inmates.
“You don’t take a guppy and stick them into a shark tank … I’m not saying, ‘Give a child a break if they did something wrong.’ I’m saying, ‘Still be stern, but just,'” said Lucido, a former probation officer and criminal defense attorney who said Michigan law lacks justification and “common sense.” He said he plans for his committee to consider the legislation “ASAP.”
In the past, opponents of the bills have largely focused on the budgetary implications. Counties, which split juvenile justice costs 50-50 with the state, want legislators to ensure that the state would fully fund the additional cost of bringing 17-year-olds into the system — or else it would be an unconstitutional unfunded mandate. A 2018 report estimated that raising the age would cost between roughly $27 million and $61 million annually.
Meghann Keit, a lobbyist for the Michigan Association of Counties, said she hopes the funding issues can be worked out after legislators began more closely studying the numbers last year. The legislation would require counties to choose one of two mechanisms to be reimbursed by the state for adding 17-year-olds to the system.
“I think we’re close, but we just have a little bit more work to do before we can fully be on board with it,” she said, adding that there have been “great conversations” with legislative leaders.
The bills’ supporters say 17-year-olds could receive age-appropriate rehabilitation services that are unavailable in the adult corrections system. Juveniles treated as adults are more likely to reoffend, they say, and are at a greater risk of being assaulted behind bars.
“Every day we hold off, these kids experience trauma. They lose crucial hours of education. They miss out on opportunities to grow and discover their potential,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, Kids Count director at the Michigan League for Public Policy, which advocates for the poor. “It’s time to do the right thing.”