Opinion: Raise the Age for Michigan teens is good policy

John Evans

We have a real opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of our youth and our state’s future with bipartisan “Raise the Age” legislation now pending in the Michigan Legislature. Currently, Michigan – one of just four states across the country – charges and prosecutes all 17-year-olds as adults no matter the severity of the crime.

Nearly everyone agrees that this needs to change.

Too often, this outdated policy creates harmful, unintended and lasting consequences. Our kids suffer needlessly in an adult prison rather than a system designed to treat adolescents with age-appropriate services and programs geared to rehabilitate and guide them to a safe and productive future. Keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system (except in cases where a judge or prosecutor chooses to pursue adult charges for the most serious crimes) is not only more effective and common sense, it’s right thing to do.

Prison Bars

We collectively know that it’s more than time to Raise the Age.

Despite broad support across both sides of the aisle and from diverse business, community, and faith leaders, the package of much-needed reforms has gotten bogged down with administrative details, funding worries and bureaucratic skepticism.

As a former county court administrator who spent my entire 40+ year career in the field of juvenile justice at the state and local levels, I understand first-hand some of the concerns and potential barriers to enacting this legislation. But they are not and must not be insurmountable.

We have a responsibility and moral obligation to get this figured out and implement responsible, smart and forward-looking policy – for our kids, for our communities, for our public safety, and for our strong, shared future.

Many of the perceived details, worries and barriers like data reporting and available bed space are in need of significant reform regardless of whether 17-year-old youth are included. Perhaps Raise the Age will provide the impetus to modernize the system for all of our youth.

And yes, appropriate funding to help the state and Child Care Fund cover expenses counties accrue is essential. This is a perennial need and concern. It’s incumbent on the administrators at both levels, state and county, to make well-informed cost projections and ensure that county commissioners and state lawmakers can best and most accurately meet needs.

Having been an administrator and staff during my career, there have been many initiatives that I wished we had more time to implement. That said, we carried them out, understanding it was not an option to disregard the best interests of the children the government is charged with caring for. In this case, the legislation should include a two-year implementation window and a chance to address any additional needs if warranted. It helps ensure details can be worked out so we don’t delay any longer and place one more 17-year-old in a jail cell unnecessarily.

Michigan can and must do better. Our youth, our communities and state’s future depend on it.

John Evans is the recently retired court administrator of the Livingston County Circuit and Family Court.