In a sad twist of irony, Michigan legislators and advocates hoping to improve the state’s juvenile justice system ran out of time this year because of how long it took to address one of the biggest child abuse scandals in American history.
“What’s held us back is the Larry Nassar situation,” said Tom Hickson, referring to the Michigan State-based doctor for USA Gymnastics who was on charges of child molestation possession of child pornography. “That took two months alone.”
Hickson – vice president for public policy at the Michigan Catholic Conference – and other juvenile justice advocates will have to wait until at least autumn to push a package that features inclusion of 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system. That reform will require a slate of bills passed in tandem to change a lot of state code to reflect that 18 is the new criminal age of adulthood.
Though every state permits some youths to be tried as adults, Michigan is one of only five states left where the default view of 17-year-olds is that they are adults in the eyes of the law. The other four are: Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin.
The proposed Michigan reforms would also make a few changes in the way that teens who are transferred to adult court are served. Among those changes:
- Transfer power: The state is one of 15 that permits prosecutors to automatically charge certain offenses in adult court. The bills would remove three offenses from that list: bank/safe robbery, escape from a juvenile facility, and large quantity drug possession.
- Following youth: The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) would have to track and report on any people whose case originates in adult court before the age of 18.
- Juvenile settings: Before a youth tried in adult court turns 18, he or she must remain in a juvenile facility.
- Family matters: The bills would create an MDOC Family Advisory Board, to advise the agency on strategies to keep young inmates in regular contact with supportive family.
With legislation related to Nassar wrapped up, Hickson believes that the raise-the-age package has a chance to move after the summer recess, but before the new governor is sworn in next year. The current administration of Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is favorable to the raise-the-age plan.
Hickson said hearings on the plan have been penciled in for September, leaving advocates the summer to rally support in the courts and counties for the plan. “I’d give it a 25 percent chance that we can get it done by the lame duck [session].”
According to Hickson, the biggest political hurdle is figuring out “how to pay for this” without shifting a huge cost increase onto counties. Recent crime statistics show about 8,500 arrests of 17-year-olds – shifting most of those cases into juvenile court would represent a 50 percent increase in the statewide juvenile arrest count.
The immediate costs of the plan could be up to $52 million, Hickson said, and could land more heavily on counties. In Michigan, counties operate juvenile justice with a 50 percent match from the state, but the state is the sole funder of probation, where most adjudicated 17-year-olds now land.
With these bills, Michigan would follow a long line of state reforms aimed at narrowing the exposure of teens to adult court and corrections. A report last year by the Campaign for Youth Justice identified 19 states that have narrowed adult involvement since 2015.
Michigan would be the fourth state since 2014 to raise the age of jurisdiction. South Carolina raised its age from 17 to 18, and both New York and North Carolina have passed laws raising their criminal age from 16 to 18.