Bills to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles near Whitmer's desk

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate approved Wednesday bills to begin treating 17-year-olds in Michigan's criminal justice system as juveniles and the legislation could soon land on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly for the legislative package that would shift many 17-year-olds from adult criminal courts to family courts. Michigan is one of five states that  treat 17-year-olds as adults.

Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, and Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Twp., discuss votes to begin treating 17-year-olds as juveniles in the criminal justice system on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019.

Advocacy groups have been pushing for years to change the law as part of a "raise the age" campaign.

Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, an attorney who has championed the package, said 17-year-olds don't get the services they need in adult court.

"They can’t vote at 17. They can’t sit on a jury so they’re never getting a jury of their peers. They can’t enter into a legally binding contract," Lucido said.

Most of the bills passed in votes of 35-3. Opposition came from Republican Sens. Ruth Johnson of Holly, Jim Runestad of White Lake and Lana Theis of Brighton.

State law would still allow prosecutors to pursue charging juveniles who commit serious crimes, such as murder or rape, as adults, but Runestad said he was concerned how often it would happen.

Runestad said he talked to prosecutors in multiple counties who told him that trying juveniles as adults occurs in a small minority of serious cases involving juveniles.

While supporters argue the change would help rehabilitate 17-year-old offenders so they won't commit crimes again, Runestad said, "It's not necessarily going to end the problem."

The Whitmer administration has said it supports the overall goal of the legislation but has concerns about the financial implications. Under the bills, the state would pay the increased costs faced by local governments because of the additional juvenile cases.

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.

During a House committee meeting on Tuesday, Bethany Wicksall of the State Budget Office questioned how the state would decide which costs are reasonable for reimbursement and which aren't.

Lucido said Wednesday he hadn't heard anything else from the State Budget Office about the bills.

"We intend to move forward and hopefully have the governor sign it," Lucido said.

The House approved Tuesday a similar set of bills. And key lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said they've reached a consensus and agreed about which specific bills would go to Whitmer.

"It shows how bipartisanship works in the state of Michigan," Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, said after the votes.

Senate Republican spokeswoman Amber McCann said the bills would officially be sent to Whitmer "as quickly as possible."

A coalition of groups called Raise the Age has been pushing to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles in Michigan for at least five years. The nonprofit Michigan League for Public Policy has been part of that coalition. The group's president, Gilda Jacobs, said in a statement Wednesday that she's hopeful Whitmer will sign the bills.

"This is a huge win for Michigan kids and families, our local communities and economies, our national reputation and our society as a whole," said Jacobs, a former Democratic lawmaker.