Column: Raise the Age could be a bipartisan win 100 years in the making

June 21, 2019 10:10 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs an executive order for a criminal justice reform taskforce, April 17, 2019 | Nick Manes

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spent her inauguration speech talking about “building bridges” and embracing bipartisanship.

And while some Michiganders dared to dream that was possible, those of us who have been in the trenches — and literally on one side of the legislative aisle or the other — had a harder time shedding our cynicism. It sounded good rhetorically, but couldn’t last politically.

But then something amazing happened. The days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, and while there have certainly been some differences, there also have been some big, unexpected compromises. And through the first six months of 2019, the thread of bipartisanship has remained strong.

And there’s another big policy win on the precipice — raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in Michigan from 17 to 18 years old.

Here’s a quick primer on “Raise the Age.” Michigan law currently treats all 17-year-olds as adults when they get involved with the justice system, regardless of their offense. Our state has been doing so since 1912, when the lives of 17-year-olds and science’s understanding of age and brain development were both very different.

Michigan is now one of only four states that still do this automatically.

Fixing this law will improve the treatment of Michigan’s youth, allowing them to be educated, rehabilitated and given a second chance through access to school and youth-driven programming; upholding their physical and mental safety by keeping them out of adult prisons and harm’s way; and improving our economy by investing in these young people’s promise and opening more doors to opportunity and financial security.

These outcomes are all backed by data and research. Unfortunately, despite its merit and potential for good, Raise the Age has struggled to get political traction in the past.  

Thankfully, there has been a marked change this session. Riding the purple wave of bipartisanship and a sea change on Raise the Age’s importance, for the first time in the issue’s history, these bills have passed both the full House and Senate. However, because the House and Senate passed different versions, the final bills are still being negotiated and need to be finalized before becoming law.

With a solid legislative foundation and widespread, bipartisan support, there should be no further delay in making these bills law.

Former Detroit Police Chief Ike McKinnon said, “Over the 30 years I spent in Michigan law enforcement, including as chief of the Detroit Police Department, I watched too many young people get placed in a system that was never designed to accommodate them. The Michigan House and Senate recently have passed legislation to fix this problem. They need to reconcile their versions into one and get it on the governor’s desk without delay.”

Helaine Zack

Local officials also support Raise the Age, and have been a key voice in the discussion, including Oakland County Commissioner Helaine Zack, who introduced a resolution in support.

“It’s an important issue that I’ve been looking at for a couple years,” she said. “It disturbs me that we have a mandatory adult sentence for a 17-year-old. Raising the age allows the judge discretion for those misdemeanors that they can keep them in the juvenile area and not housed with adults.”

But the most important voices supporting Raise the Age are still those of the kids Michigan’s current law impacts, as they have shared personal experiences, done media interviews, written school newspaper columns, testified at legislative committee hearings and more.

One teenager from West Michigan wrote, “While personally, I have no criminal charges, as a 17-year-old in Michigan, I have seen this law wreak havoc on many of my close friends. It’s crazy to think someone even a year younger in the same grade can have completely different repercussions for the same crime and yet 17-year-olds still aren’t considered adults.

“I cannot buy nicotine products, I cannot pick up my own prescriptions or go to my own doctor’s appointment, but if I were to commit a crime, I could go to an adult prison.”

Michigan Capitol, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

These are just a few of the people who want to see Raise the Age passed. Along with other supporters, they know that it needs to happen soon.

After getting Raise the Age further through the legislative process than ever before, we advocates need to keep fighting for this important reform. Legislative leaders need to keep working to solve their differences and fix this outdated law.

Both Raise the Age packages contain a two-year implementation phase, which means that all delays are even more heightened. Every week that goes by means that more kids are paying too high a price for youthful mistakes. And more kids are being sentenced into a system that undercuts their educational and economic promise and puts them in physical, mental and emotional danger.

Michigan can and must do better, and lawmakers have the power to do it now.

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Alex Rossman
Alex Rossman

Alex Rossman is external affairs director for the Michigan League for Public Policy. Alex previously worked for Democratic Central Staff for the Michigan Senate for almost 10 years, serving as the deputy communications director and, previously, as press secretary and communications advisor.