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Column: Update young offender sentencing

Reps. Harvey Santana and Peter Lucido

As legislators, we like to think of Michigan as a forward-thinking state. In many areas of state law, this is true. However, one area that is firmly rooted in outdated ideals and practices is our method of charging and sentencing youthful offenders. Currently, Michigan is one of only nine states that automatically charges and prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults.

Numerous studies have indicated that incarcerating youth in adult prisons actually increases the likelihood they will commit violent crimes upon their release. We need to ensure we are effectively rehabilitating youthful offenders and not simply warehousing them in prison.

Two of the most important duties of state legislators are to protect public safety and effectively oversee public expenditures. It is our opinion that our youthful offender laws as written accomplish neither of these goals. That is why we, along with over 30 of our colleagues in the House and Senate, have banded together to call for reform of our criminal justice system.

We are the lead sponsors of a 21-bill, bipartisan, bicameral package aimed at raising the cutoff for juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years of age. The package enjoys the support of 15 primary sponsors and a growing list of co-sponsors as well as non-governmental organizations such as the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD).

Research shows that adolescent brains are significantly different than those of adults and are still developing well into their mid-20s. With this legislative bill package, juvenile offenders would have the opportunity to enter into age-appropriate rehabilitative services. Michigan owes this opportunity to its youth — the opportunity to be rehabilitated and a second chance of being a productive member of society. Simply placing a teenager in an adult prison system does nothing to correct the child’s behavior. In fact according to the MCCD, youth exiting the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend, reoffend sooner, and escalate to more violent offenses than their counterparts in our juvenile justice system. It is time for Michigan to abandon this Draconian practice and align itself with the 41 other states that recognize 17-year-olds should not be automatically prosecuted as adults.

This bill package is a complete reform of how we treat youthful offenders within our criminal justice system. While our main focus is raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years of age, numerous other bills within the package aim to reform the way we handle youth behind bars.

These bills include not allowing youth under the age of 18 to be housed in any adult correctional facility, ensuring age-appropriate rehabilitation services are available, eliminating certain non-violent offenses that do not require adult sentencing from the list of specified juvenile offenses, requiring public monitoring and oversight of any youth in prison, requiring equal consideration of all mitigating factors prior to waiving jurisdiction in traditional juvenile waiver cases, establishing a family advisory board within the Michigan Department of Corrections to ensure effective partnerships with families and victims, and requiring policies in line with Michigan’s Mental Health Code for youth out-of-cell time.

According to a 2015 statewide opinion poll collected by the MCCD, 64 percent of Michigan citizens believe that youth under the age of 18 should not be held in adult prisons or jails. Fifteen state legislators, all from various backgrounds and diverse political beliefs agree with the majority of Michigan: that the children of our state deserve the chance to have access to rehabilitation and be put on a better path towards a brighter future.

State Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, represents Michigan’s 9th district. State Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, represents Michigan’s 36th district.