Bills to keep kids out of adult prisons advance
Lansing — Legislation designed to keep kids out of adult courts and prisons is heading to the House floor despite lingering concerns over its long-term costs for Michigan counties.
The House Criminal Justice Reform Committee on Tuesday approved a 19-bill package that would place most 17-year-old suspects into the juvenile justice system instead of treating them as adults, which is standard practice under current law in Michigan.
The legislation also would prohibit authorities from holding or confining juveniles in the same prison, jail, vehicle or courtroom as adults.
“This is, by far, the largest corrections reform bill package of any state Legislature in the United States, and it’s only because we’re so far behind,” said Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, a lead sponsor on the package.
“What sense does it make to send a 16- or 17-year-old to an adult prison? What good could possibly come from that?”
The bipartisan package has faced pushback from county officials because placing more juvenile offenders in youth housing would increase local costs, and the bills do not specify any mechanism for state reimbursement.
But Santana and Committee Chairman Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth Township, said it was important to move the bills now so they can be part of fiscal year 2017 budget discussions, which began last week with the governor’s proposal.
“We need to get these bills out because we’re a policy committee here, and I believe that the appropriations committee needs to see this is a real subject, a real conversation,” Santana said.
Santana told his colleagues that a separate funding bill is in the works. The state Department of Health and Human Services, which currently splits youth housing costs with counties, could end up cover the full share if county’s document their costs.
County officials have suggested the legislation could cost them up to $400 million in aggregate, according to Heise, who said he is skeptical of the projection but acknowledged that directing any potential state savings to counties would not make them whole.
The Department of Corrections currently houses 83 prisoners under the age of 18 and would likely save money under the legislation, according to the House Fiscal Agency, which determined the package would increase costs for counties and the Department of Health and Human Services by an unknown amount.
Local officials spoke out against the bills in a December hearing, telling lawmakers they did not have “philosophical” problems with the proposed reforms but were concerned about the practical implications.
“This could break the bank for some of our counties,” said Dana Gill, director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Association of Counties, at the time. “If this is an important change to make, then we have to talk about investment.”
Under the legislation, most criminal suspects under the age of 18 would be placed into the family court system. Minors as young as 14 who are accused of serious crimes, including murder or rape, could still be waived to adult court.
The Department of Corrections would also be required to develop policies ensuring that any inmates under the age of 21 are offered outdoor exercise or out-of-cell activities at least five days a week.
The juvenile justice package is part of a long-running effort to reform the state’s criminal justice system, a process that has proven complicated despite support from Gov. Rick Snyder.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, declined to discuss the juvenile justice legislation until he has the opportunity to study it further.
The attorney general’s office has not taken a position on the new package and is “monitoring it closely,” said Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely.
The Senate “is going to have to make some tough decisions about whether or not we’re really serious about criminal justice reform,” said Heise, who said he anticipates the juvenile justice bills will find support in the House.