Whitmer signs 'historic reform' to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Bills that would treat 17-year-olds in Michigan’s criminal justice system as juveniles instead of adults were signed into law Thursday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in what supporters called a "historic reform."

Michigan joins 46 other states who already treat 17-year-olds as juveniles or are preparing to do so. During a bill signing ceremony at the Capitol, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said the legislation would prevent kids from spending a lifetime in and out of prison.

"We can reduce their contact with the system," Gilchrist said. "We can ensure that more young people go down real paths to careers that make sense for them and allow them to live out their best potential … We can change the trajectory for life for thousands of people here in the state of Michigan."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a bill signing ceremony Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019, in the Capitol. Whitmer signed bills to treat 17-year-olds as juveniles in Michigan's criminal justice system.

Thursday's signing ceremony came after a years-long "raise the age" campaign and eventual passage in the past month by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

In 2014, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency published a report on the treatment of young people in the state’s adult jails. The report found that 17-year-olds faced sexual and physical assaults and their incarceration as adults increased the risk they would commit additional crimes after release.

Jason Smith, director of youth justice policy for the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, said 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system don’t receive age appropriate treatment and their families aren’t sufficiently involved.

Smith recalled initial meetings he had with former Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, in 2014 about the "raise the age" legislation. Smith said the push to get the bills through the Legislature was a "long road."

 "We are celebrating today,” Smith added. "This is a historic reform for Michigan’s youth."

Criminal justice reform has become a focus of the Whitmer administration and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Lawmakers have a better understanding today than they had 20 years ago about the types of systems that will rehabilitate offenders instead of simply "locking people up," Gilchrist said.

Former Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, attended Thursday’s signing ceremony since he worked on a series of criminal justice reforms while serving in the Legislature from 2009 through 2014.

"We knew this stuff was going to succeed eventually," Haveman said. "You could see the train coming. You could see attitudes change."

If 17-year-olds move to the juvenile system, an increase of 7,564 juvenile cases is expected to occur in Michigan, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency. From July 2015 to July 2016, there were 29,959 juvenile cases overall.

Under the bills, the state would pay the increased costs faced by local governments because of the additional juvenile cases. The change would take effect in 2021.

State law would still allow prosecutors to pursue charging juveniles who commit serious crimes, such as murder or rape, as adults, but opponents of the "raise the age" bills have questioned how often that would actually happen.

Briana Moore of Madison Heights attended Thursday’s bill signing, saying she  was charged with assault and battery when she was 17 years old because of her involvement in a scuffle at a mall. She was sentenced as an adult to a year of probation.

"Standing there and having my lawyer say you’re being charged as an adult, I’m like I can’t even sign up for the military and I can’t even vote," Moore said.

The adult conviction made it difficult to get a job and to pursue a college education, she said.

Smith noted that 17-year-olds who commit crimes in other states and are treated as juveniles are in better position for their future careers than similar 17-year-olds in Michigan.

"We are doing something right for kids today," Smith said.