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Opinion: Whitmer, let’s build on success for youth justice

Mary King

Thanks, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for signing legislation that raises to age 18 the jurisdiction of juvenile courts. This change will protect more of Michigan’s young people by not only keeping them out of the adult system but also by allowing them to receive age-appropriate and rehabilitative services that will provide a second chance for the many youths charged with minor offenses.

It’s no small feat that this “Raise the Age” legislation — some five years in the making — became law, and it is a great example of what bipartisan collaboration looks like. Democrats and Republicans — in particular Sens. Sylvia Santana and Peter Lucido, Rep. Graham Filler and former reps. Harvey Santana and Martin Howrylak — championed this legislation, and we are grateful to them as well.

Here at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, we’ve advocated “Raise the Age” since the release of our 2014 report, “Youth Behind Bars,” which described how young people held in adult jails and prisons faced sexual and other physical assaults, were more likely to commit suicide, and were at an increased risk for future violence and recidivism. The report also noted that young people in the adult system were denied access to the rehabilitative and community programs found in the juvenile system.

Young people held in adult jails and prisons are more likely to commit suicide, and are at an increased risk for future violence and recidivism, according to a 2014 report from the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michigan is now able to shed its dubious distinction as one of only four states in the nation to automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults, in large part because this reform transcended partisanship and focused on alleviating the harm to our young people. 

There is still more work to be done, and we hope that the same spirit that embodied the Raise the Age legislation extends to further efforts on behalf of troubled youths. For example, while the new law increases the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, it does not prohibit kids under 18 from being incarcerated with adults if their case is transferred to the adult criminal justice system.

In addition, as counties prepare to serve additional youths, it’s an excellent time to examine ways in which juvenile courts can divert more young people away from formal court involvement and expand community-based alternatives to confinement for those who remain under court supervision. Other states have done this very thing when they raised the age, resulting in a smaller juvenile justice system overall that reserves expensive confinement for youths with the greatest needs, and provides other options for accountability and treatment to the vast majority of young people who come to their attention.

With its important conversations and reasonable compromises, the Raise the Age reform is a great reminder of how we can all work together on behalf of young people, regardless of our dispositions, geography or affiliations. As we work toward getting all youth out of adult facilities, and create a youth justice system that prioritizes diversion and community-based treatment, we ask that Gov. Whitmer encourage the diverse Raise the Age constituencies to continue in partnership with us to create a fair and effective justice system for Michigan’s children, youths and young adults.

Mary King is the executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit organization dedicated to youth justice reform, specifically a reduction in youth confinement through community-based and other alternative measures. For more information, go to