Bill to Reform Michigan’s Juvenile Justice System

This month, a bipartisan bill proposal to change the minimum age to try a criminal as an adult is scheduled to be voted on by the Michigan legislature. This bill would change the age from 17 to 18 and prohibit sending anyone under 18 to an adult prison. Bill proponents suggest that this change could reduce 95 percent of youth being sentenced into adult correctional facilities and provide them the proper rehabilitation services they require. Michigan Representative Kurt Heise has criticized Michigan’s late change on this issue saying, “The majority of other states have already reversed ‘get tough’ policies because they simply don’t work. So far, in 2015, there have been 35 pieces of legislation passed in 19 different states that are making justice systems more effective and efficient…”

Over 20,000 minors in the U.S. were sent to prisons between the years of 2003 to 2013. Michigan is currently 1 of 9 states that still sentences minors under the age of 18 as adults. Michigan is also 1 of 5 states that can waive a minor away from juvenile court with no possibility to reversing it. If they were found guilty, they were given adult penalties. Some can be sentenced to life without parole as young as 14.

While most people may think that these harsh convictions must mean that offenders have been committing horrendous crimes, data from a 2014 report by the non-profit Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency shows that a majority are non-violent crimes. The report also shows that Latinos, Blacks, and youth from low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately tried as adults. Even when the crime does involve violence, the current system sometimes favors adult perpetrators over the minors who served as their accomplices. In an interview on WDET in April of this year, Deborah Labelle an attorney working on the cases of minors in Michigan prisons stated, “I see so many repetitive patterns that I find very painful, where someone is with an adult and the adult does the shooting and is clearly in control of this kid, and the adult manages to negotiate a fairly good plea deal … And the juvenile who said, ‘I did something, but I didn’t hurt anybody myself,’ will now serve until they die.” John Barnas of MLive has reported that “Michigan spends more than $10 million a year to house more juvenile lifers than all but one other state, Pennsylvania,” according to research conducted by Human Rights Watch. It seems that Michigan legislators have actually been reading the research. On the Campaign for Youth Justice website, several have urged support for the bipartisan bill that also seeks to give youth “greater access to age-appropriate rehabilitative services.” Perhaps Representative Peter J. Lucido (R-Shelby Township) best explains what supporters hope this bill will accomplish. Lucido is quoted as saying, “Science has shown us the brain does not fully develop its cognitive and reasoning skills until the mid-twenties. Therefore, it makes no sense not to join the forty-one other states which treat 17-year-olds as juveniles and 18-year-olds as adults in our correctional system. Instead of just tossing a 17-year-old in jail and give up on them, we should put in the effort to help set them on a better path towards a brighter future.”

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