17-year-olds to be treated as teenagers, not adults by courts

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Now that 17-year-old youths will no longer be tried in Michigan’s adult courts  for certain crimes, court and county officials are figuring out how to make that transition.

Since Oct. 1, 17-year-olds must be processed through the juvenile justice system because of the Raise the Age legislation passed in 2019.

Counties were given an “intentionally long runway” to get a plan in place, said Alex Rossman, the external affairs director for the Michigan League for Public Policy, a nonpartisan organization that works to ensure economic opportunity for all Michiganders.

The time was used to ensure there was “proper staffing, services and programs that were able to handle additional youth in the system,” said Meghann Keit-Corrion, a governmental affairs associate at the Michigan Association of Counties. And it gave the Department of Health and Human Services time it needed to ensure funding was in place to support the legislation.

“We made sure that our counties were getting the help they needed from the state, so that they could fund and staff these youth that are now coming into the juvenile justice programming,” said Keit-Corrion.

Before the change, those costs were paid for by the state. 

Local governments were concerned that the costs would shift to them when offenders went into the juvenile justice system. The state created the Raise the Age Fund to alleviate those concerns. 

For instance, Livingston County increased its annual budget by $90,000 in anticipation of the higher case load. Whatever it spends of that amount will be 100% reimbursed by the state. 

The county inventoried three years of district and circuit cases to identify how many new cases might hit the juvenile court system, said Deborah Shaw, Livingston County’s juvenile and probate court administrator.

“We expect an increase of about 12% of cases to come to the juvenile court,” Shaw said.  

The new caseloads and their costs vary from county to county, said Thom Lattig, the juvenile court director for Ottawa County and president of the Michigan Association of Family Court Administrators. 

In early 2021, the Michigan State University Juvenile Risk Assessment Team conducted an analysis of 13 counties. To ensure relatable findings, they surveyed a mix of small, medium and large counties.

The results indicated that, on average, counties could expect a 21% increase in 17-year-old offenders. Smaller counties could increase by 29%; medium counties by 28%; and large and very large counties by 15%. 

In 2018 and 2019, the average number of cases was 9,488 for the state, according to the FBI’s recent Uniform Crime Report.

Youth advocates are anxious to learn how the shift works.

“It’s equally important that we hear directly from 17-year-olds under juvenile court supervision to learn about their experiences in the juvenile justice system,” said Jason Smith, the executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice in Ann Arbor. “Their voice must be included in the implementation story.”

Smith said this is a good step toward ensuring teenagers are treated fairly and equitably by the justice system.

“It’s important to us and to our supporters that the positive impact of this policy change is lifted up and shared with the public.”

Positive impact is felt in a multitude of ways.

“One of the pieces that helped broaden the political support was making the connection to keeping them out of prison in the future,” Rossman said.

Youth who remain in the juvenile justice system are 34% less likely to reoffend according to statistics provided by the League for Public Policy. And they earn 40% more over their lifetime.

“Keeping them out of prison in the future saves the state money,” Rossman said. “Enabling them to make more money in the future generates more state tax revenue.”

The physical and mental health benefits are far reaching.

In the adult system, 17-year-olds are at higher risk for sexual assault, suicide and solitary confinement, said Rossman. The Raise the Age law enables the state of Michigan to treat kids as a “valuable and vulnerable resource.”

“That one decision on where we send 17-year-olds,” said Rossman, “is really a divergent path and changes the whole trajectory of their lives.”

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