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Mich. legislature passes bills to stop automatically charging, incarcerating 17-year-olds as adults

This piece originally appeared on Daily Kos.

Thanks to legislation that’s expected to cross Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk this week, starting in 2021 Michigan will no longer be one of the only states left in the country that automatically locks up 17-year-old children in adult jails.

Raise the Age legislation won bipartisan approval in Michigan’s legislature last week after compromises were made between differing versions passed by the state’s House and Senate. Under the bill package, starting in Oct. 2021 the majority of teens 17 and under will face the juvenile justice system instead of the adult system when they are accused or convicted of criminal offenses. There will also be more protections for those youth who remain in the adult system, as the new law requires that they be housed and transported separately from incarcerated adults.

Those protections are essential. As Daily Kos reported in April, teens who are incarcerated with adults face a far higher risk of death by suicide, are more likely to be thrown into solitary confinement, and are at a greater risk of sexual assault than incarcerated adults. Children who are incarcerated with adults also frequently lose their chance for an education and are at greater risk of re-incarceration.

The compromise package also resolves differences in proposed funding between the House and Senate versions. Under the package as passed, the state will pick up the bill for the increased number of teenagers entering county juvenile justice systems.

While Michigan has been well behind the times in terms of treating children in the justice system like children, the state’s move to finally raise the age of adult incarceration is part of an accelerating trend. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, Louisiana, South Carolina, New York, North Carolina, and Missouri have raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18 since 2016.

Until the law goes into effect, Michigan will remain one of only four states (along with Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin) that are still incarcerating youth who are legally considered too young to vote, sign a contract, or hire their own attorney to defend them in court. However, even those states are taking action to protect teenagers from the adult justice system.

According to Justice Policy Institute executive director Marc Schindler, Georgia is currently actively considering its own raise the age legislation. Wisconsin’s governor has made the issue a priority, and “Texas just had a week of action on raise the age, though they are not in session again until 2021.”

"(Michigan is) joining a number of other states in recent years following the research and scientifically established best practice to ensure children are treated like children," Schindler told Daily Kos. “(Passage of Raise the Age) took way too long. Michigan should have done it years ago, but we are very hopeful that Gov. Whitmer will sign the bills and we will be off to implementation."

Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown told Daily Kos on Monday that “We are supportive of the overall goal of the legislation and are reviewing the bill(s).”

A statement released by the Michigan's Raise the Age Coalition applauded lawmakers for passing the legislation while noting that "important concerns remain for Michigan youth in the adult justice system and coalition members hope the Legislature will continue to work to resolve them in the months ahead. Our work is not done."

Jason Smith, a youth justice policy associate with the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, told Daily Kos that advocates remain concerned for teenagers who will remain in Michigan's adult jails, including those who will continue to be diverted to the adult system by prosecutors.

"Prosecutors will still have discretion," Smith said, "and not all the kids waived [to the adult system] will have committed serious offenses that endangered others. We're hoping people realize that even the kids who remain in the adult system after the change happens aren't necessarily there for serious, life-threatening offenses."

This piece originally appeared on Daily Kos.



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