Starting in October 2021, 17-year-olds will no longer automatically be treated as adults in Michigan’s criminal justice system.
Michigan will join the vast majority of other states that treat 17-year-olds as children. Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed the bills Thursday.
Democratic Senator Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) was a bill sponsor. She said the change will save taxpayers money in the long run. And that money can go toward other things, like education.
“That’s the forefront of what we need to do is educate individuals, not lock them up and throw away the key,” she told reporters.
Fellow bill sponsor, Republican Senator Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township) has been working on these changes for years. He said the age of a juvenile in other court systems, like Family Court, is 18.
“Why are we calling them a child for child support services, but an adult for criminal purposes? Kinda doesn’t make sense,” he said.
One of the thousands of 17-year-olds who have been treated as adults in the criminal justice system is Briana Moore. She said in an interview that she is haunted by her experience in the adult system.
“I had this sense of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a criminal now’,” Moore said in an interview.
Moore was convicted of misdemeanor assault after a mall fight. Like other 17-year-olds in Michigan’s judicial system, she was automatically treated like an adult.
Moore’s story is typical of these types of cases. She was not incarcerated, but she was put on adult probation – without any support services – and she reoffended while on probation with a more serious drug crime.
Moore said the hardest part of improving her life has been dealing with the stigma of having an adult crime on her record. When she applied for jobs and internships, all people would see – and judge her by – was what was on that paper.
“It’s just been one thing after another,” Moore said. “Like you think what happens at 17-years-old which was almost, basically, 15 years ago, I’m having to continually explain the behaviors of a 17-year-old.”
Moore believes that if she had been charged as a juvenile, things would have been different.
If Moore had been treated as a juvenile she would have gotten individualized treatment.
Here’s what that might have looked like: An attorney referee, who only handles juvenile cases, would have been in charge of her case. A juvenile court officer would have spoken to her and her family, maybe even her teachers. This would have given the officer and referee a better idea of what she needed. There would have been more oversight. More check-ins with her officer and the referee. And she likely would have gotten counseling. Which Moore said between her alcohol problem and feelings of isolation, she needed.
Instead, in the adult system, Moore felt forgotten.
“I don’t know what would have happened,” Moore said. “And I think that’s what bothers me the most because no one stopped and asked.”
Gilda Jacobs is with the Michigan League for Public Policy. She says their research shows young people in the juvenile system are more likely to turn their lives around. But the adult system is different.
“Once they get into an adult system initially, that can create barriers for the rest of their adult lives,” Jacobs said. “Whether it’s education or housing, or employment, it has lifelong effects.”
Jacobs said having a 17-year-old in the adult system can damage them physically and psychologically and puts a lot of strain on families.
“So if we can avoid those kinds of costs – and I don’t mean costs in terms of monetary costs – but in terms of the damage that this can do to a person and the families, then we should be able to do that,” Jacobs said.
But it’s those monetary costs that has held this change up for so long – and is the reason the laws won’t go into effect for another two years. The big hang up has been, how the counties will pay for the influx of juvenile cases.
Meghann Keit, with the Michigan Association of Counties, said the courts and counties will need those two years to try to figure out how much money to budget every year for this change.
Keit says some of the things they need to figure out include: do counties need to hire more juvenile court officers? Do they need more staff for intake? Prosecutors’ offices will have to figure out if they need more attorneys to handle the workload.
“There’s so many unknowns still with this, so it’s really hard to have good quality answers or hard numbers,” Keit said. “That’s just been the difficulty with this policy.
The numbers are up in the air, but some studies predict that this could cost counties millions of dollars.
For Moore, the change in the state’s policy means she can move on, and she doesn’t have to worry about other 17-year-olds getting caught up in the system like she did.
“I know at least, no other child is going to have to go through this the way that I did,” she said. “We won’t have to ask those same questions – what if.”
But in the two years before the law takes effect, thousands of 17-year-olds could be treated as adults. A 2017 study by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency found that within a span of 10 years, more than 19,000 17-years-olds that committed crimes were treated as adults.
Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist said at a press conference that this is just part of the work the state is doing to improve its criminal justice system.
“This legislation is long overdue,” he said. “These bills will strengthen the integrity of our criminal justice system. And they’ll protect countless minors from the harms of being in the adult system.”
Michigan has also made changes to its civil asset forfeiture laws, and lawmakers are currently working on legislation to expand the state’s expungement laws.