Michigan Raise The Age Law on Track to Pass, Leaving Three States with Juvenile Age Under 18

The number of states with a juvenile justice age below 18 stands at four, down from 14 states a decade ago.

By the end of this legislative season, another one is likely to bite the dust. Advocates expect Michigan to pass a law that would raise the age (RTA) of jurisdiction from 17 to 18, effective October 2021.

“We are pretty confident that RTA will pass this session,” said Jason Smith, director of youth justice policy at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD). “A strong bipartisan desire for criminal justice reform exists in the legislature and the Governor’s office, and RTA is viewed by many as a common-sense reform that increases public safety and improves the life outcomes of Michigan’s youth.”

The “raise the age” movement in Michigan gained a lot of momentum last year, with a bill introduced in the House that passed out of the Law and Justice Committee. But because the committees in charge spent so much time addressing the horrifying sex abuse scandal at Michigan State, time ran out before anything could be voted on by a full chamber.

This year, the effort was pared down, with raise the age bills introduced in isolation – last year, they were paired up with other items on the juvenile advocacy wish list, including changes to the list of waiver offenses and use of solitary confinement with young offenders.

The legislation moved quickly through both chambers, and now await a conference to work out the differences. There are really only two big ones: how the funding will work, and which government branch will handle it. In both scenarios, the state will fund the shift thanks to what’s known as the Headlee Amendment, a Michigan rule that prevents the state from foisting unfunded mandates onto its 83 counties.

The Senate version would basically set up a separate account to pay for the county’s costs associated with 17-year-olds. Counties would pay for them as with any teen, and be reimbursed 100 percent for it by the state. This would be overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The House version, which puts the state court administrator’s office in charge of 17-year-olds, would begin in a similar fashion, with the state paying 100 percent. For two years, counties would track and report on expenditures for 17-year-olds.

Then, the state would use that data to recalibrate the Child Care Fund, the existing match system between the state and counties on all other juvenile services. The idea there is to eventually incorporate 17-year-olds into the regular juvenile justice partnership, with an increased match rate to render that absorption cost-neutral.

Smith said MCCD supports DHHS control over the 17-year-olds since the agency already oversees other juveniles.

“It isn’t necessary to recreate the wheel when the knowledge base already exists within DHHS to analyze eligible expenditures and provide reimbursements to the counties,” he said.

MCCD “doesn’t have a strong preference” for one funding structure over the other, Smith said, though MCCD believes the House’s plan to absorb 17-year-olds into the Child Care Fund “would make the process reporting costs and reimbursement payments for all youth easier in the long-term.”

Assuming the chambers can come to an agreement on how to proceed, it will fall to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) to sign it. Her support for the bill is expected, and Attorney General Dana Nessel has publicly supported raise the age.

If Michigan approves a law, that would leave Georgia, Wisconsin and Texas as the only states that view all 17-year-olds as adults in the eyes of the law. According to a report last year, under-18 age of jurisdiction in those states and Michigan accounts for about 22 percent of all youth sent to adult jails.

All three of those states saw legislation introduced that would set the age at 18, but are unlikely to see final passage this year.

Missouri was the most recent state to raise its age of jurisdiction to 18, passing legislation last year. In that same legislative season, Vermont became the first state to raise its age beyond 18, with a planned inclusion of youth up to 20 by the year 2022.

Note: This article was corrected on June 4 to reflect that last year’s bill did not receive passage by a full chamber.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.