Juvenile cutoff in court may rise to 18

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News
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Lansing — State lawmakers are reviewing a series of bills to raise the age for prosecuting teens as adults and make major changes to the way they are handled by Michigan’s criminal justice system.

Prosecutors now consider those younger than 17 juveniles. Legislation introduced Tuesday in Lansing would raise the age to younger than 18 — a move that would bring Michigan in line with the majority of states.

The bill is part of a comprehensive legislative package sponsored by members of both parties seeking to overhaul a criminal justice system that critics argue is steeped in outdated approaches to dealing with youth.

The package includes proposals to:

■Raise the age, from 16 to 17, for those who would be subject to juvenile code disposition for violations of personal protection orders.

■Require those up to 17 years old charged with a crime to be transferred to the family division of Circuit Court.

■Change the criteria for judges in the automatic sentencing of juveniles as adults for certain crimes.

■Prohibit juvenile inmates from being housed among adult prisoners.

Tuesday evening, Gov. Rick Snyder’s office offered a mixed assessment of the package.

“We support the concept of moving the adult age of responsibility from 17 to 18 except in extreme cases,” said Dave Murray, the governor’s press secretary. “There are significant concerns with specific bills in this package, and we know there will be continued discussion on these issues moving forward.”

From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, Michigan lawmakers gave prosecutors increased latitude to try teens as adults, while lessening the ability of judges to have a say. The moves came amid a perceived wave of teen crime and concerns about the development of young “super-predators.”

In 1988, the Legislature allowed prosecutors to decide whether 15- and 16-year-olds could be tried in adult court for certain crimes. Eight years later, lawmakers extended the prosecutorial discretion to offenders under 14, leading to the trial in adult court of Nathaniel Abraham — a Pontiac 11-year-old convicted in a 1997 shooting death.

Almost two decades later, Michigan is among a dwindling number of states — now nine — that take this approach.

“We are going back in time and telling the Legislature of the 1990s that they were wrong,” said state Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, a key sponsor of the bill package. “Locking them up and throwing away the key to get tough on crime just doesn’t work.”

A bipartisan contingent of representatives is pushing the legislative package, saying youths handled as adults are more likely to become repeat violent offenders, cost more to house and be disproportionately from minority populations. Sponsors don’t expect the measures to be taken up before the end of the year and say a funding solution has not been hammered out.

Not everyone who appeared at the committee hearing favored the idea of raising the age for prosecuting teens as adults. Livingston County Sheriff’s Lt. Tom Cremonte, a jail administrator, said the proposed bills wouldn’t improve public safety.

“I don’t buy any of what I’ve heard today in terms of reducing recidivism,” he said. “That will not happen. You will not make residents of the state of Michigan safer.”

The state and its Department of Corrections are the target of a lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly a dozen current and former “John Doe” teen inmates — all claiming to have been sexually harassed or assaulted by adult prisoners or officers.

Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, described housing teen inmates with adults as “swimming with sharks.”

“At 17 years old, you can’t vote; you can’t sign a legal contract,” Lucido said. “You can’t even go into the military and serve your country. But you can sure be charged as an adult if we allow that to happen.”

Among those who testified before the House Committee on Criminal Justice on Tuesday was Toni Bunton, a southwest Detroit resident convicted in a marijuana deal gone wrong years ago when she was 17. She was the driver in the case that left her charged with second-degree murder, even though she was unaware the killing took place at the time.

She claimed she was beaten and raped while in the prison system for 17 years until Gov. Jennifer Granholm commuted her sentence in 2008.

“What I did, my crime, hurt families, hurt relatives,” Bunton said. “I deserved to be punished. But I did not deserve to be put in adult facilities and ... I was abused for years.”

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly appeared before the committee Tuesday to support the legislative package. The state, she said, dispenses juvenile justice on a county-by-county basis, which leads to discrepancies.

As an example, Kelly said two 14-year-olds charged with the same crime in different counties can wind up in different circumstances.

“One might get diverted out of the juvenile justice system entirely,” Kelly said. “He or she might be sent to an after-school program. The other might be charged as an adult and get prison time. That’s disparity.”


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