Michigan lawmakers: Treat 17-year-olds as juveniles

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
People younger than the age of 18 would no longer be treated as adults automatically in most criminal justice proceedings under legislation passed Wednesday through the House Law and Justice Committee.

Lansing — People younger than the age of 18 would no longer be treated as adults automatically in criminal justice proceedings under legislation passed Wednesday through the House Law and Justice Committee.

The 21 proposed bills would raise the age when defendants are treated as an adult from 17 to 18, except in cases involving capital offenses, such as murder. The bills largely passed on 9-2 votes with GOP Reps. Joseph Graves and Lana Theis opposing.

The bills next will proceed to the full House for approval. 

By raising the age to 18, the legislation would ensure cases involving 17-year-olds are handled by the family division of circuit court and would influence where the defendant would be detained, be it a juvenile detention center or county jail.

Michigan is one of four states that automatically prosecute 17-year-old offenders as adults. Michigan had 7,253 17-year-old offenders in 2016.

By undergoing adjudication or a delinquency proceeding in juvenile court, instead of a criminal proceeding, 17-year-olds would have more of a chance at rehabilitation and treatment, said Rep. Klint Kesto, chairman for the House Law and Justice Committee.

“These individuals in whatever stage of life they are, whether they’re still in high school or just finished high school, certainly have an opportunity to be rehabilitated as the mind is still forming,” said Kesto, R-Commerce Township. “This is a great opportunity for us as a state and society to make that a focus.”

The bills were first introduced in the 2015-16 legislative session but failed to get Senate support, in part because of a lack of funding for the initiative, said one of the package’s sponsors, Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy.

This time around, the legislation has language that specifically addresses funding, Howrylak said, as well as support from several groups, including the Michigan Catholic Conference, the Michigan League for Public Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Howrylak was optimistic about the legislation’s chances for passage in the remaining session days.

“Conceptually, there’s plenty of time to get this done in the Senate because a lot of the heavy lifting has been done over here,” Howrylak said. “They just need to tidy up primarily the funding piece.”

The funding bill that emerged from a workgroup led by Howrylak would allow counties the option of either being reimbursed by a state grant that covers 100 percent of the costs for the additional adjudicated 17-year-olds, or foregoing the grant and receiving an increased reimbursement rate — from 50 percent to 68 percent — for all adjudicated juveniles. 

Graves, R-Linden, proposed amendments that would divert 17-year-old defendants into a system separate from younger individuals in the juvenile court system and older defendants in the criminal system. His amendments were not adopted.

Graves argued that states with similar systems saw no improvements in recidivism rates among 17-year-old defenders who were treated as juveniles by the court.

“We tried to see what states have done it,” Graves said. “There’s no improvement. It’s mixed at best. So why are we doing this?"

The bills, which would be implemented in 2021, are expected to increase both state and local county costs between $27 million and $61 million over a 3- to 5-year phase-in period, according to the commission’s March report.

While some areas of the criminal justice system would see increases in costs, others would merely see a shift such as the expected decrease in adult district and circuit courts costs, and the anticipated increased cost in juvenile circuit court.

“We’ve got a couple years before this would get implemented,” Kesto said. “We could figure out the funding source and start reworking it and reallocating it so that we’re addressing the same population just in a different manner and different funnel.”


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