Alex Rossman: Raise the Age is a criminal justice reform win for the ages

November 1, 2019 6:41 am

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As a progressive and a Detroit Lions fan, winning is a pretty foreign feeling for me. Even when it does happen, like it did this month with the long-awaited passage of the Raise the Age juvenile justice reform, it’s pretty surreal. 

Winning is also a little unsettling, as I assume something will go awry at the last second (there’s the Lions fandom at work). And that’s because over countless football seasons and legislative sessions, that anxiety, apprehension and cynicism have been learned.

My organization, the Michigan League for Public Policy, has been working since 2015 to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years old. Michigan is one of only four states that still automatically treat all 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, regardless of their offense, leading to devastating and lifelong consequences for these young people. 

In the 2015-16 legislative session, Raise the Age passed the full House with overwhelming support, but never got taken up in the Senate. Despite that progress, in the 2017-18 session, Raise the Age had trouble getting traction until the very end. It passed out of committee in the House on Nov. 28, 2018, but trying to make it out of a particularly contentious Lame Duck proved to be too much.

But advocates and legislative supporters kept working. Talking to a group of reporters after the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a compromise on Raise the Age earlier this month, I said that we’ve felt like Charlie Brown and the football on Raise the Age the last few years—we keep trying for it, but it keeps getting pulled away at the last minute. And the process has also felt like real football, as we kept pushing forward, gaining a few yards and making incremental progress each session. 

Now, with the House and Senate’s bipartisan and almost unanimous passage of Raise the Age bills — and the signature of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — the issue has finally gotten over the goal line.

This is certainly a win for the League, and one I take a lot of personal satisfaction in, but it’s really a win for Michigan’s kids and families. By fixing this outdated and ineffective law, policymakers are improving nearly every aspect of justice-involved 17-year-olds’ lives — their physical, mental and emotional well-being, their ability to be rehabilitated and learn from their mistakes, their academic and career opportunities, their future financial security and more.

Briana Moore was a Michigan resident who was prosecuted as an adult at 17 and is now a Raise the Age advocate who I had the opportunity to meet. “[Passing Raise the Age] will make such a difference for countless other teenagers and families down the road,” she said. “… Raise the Age allows teens to make mistakes and learn from them, not continue to pay for them.”

Criminal justice activist Briana Moore speaks at the Raise the Age bill singing, Oct. 31, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

Getting Raise the Age passed also has truly been a team effort. The League has been blessed with some tremendous partners in this work, including the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and the Michigan Catholic Conference. These groups share in our gratitude — and gratification.

“It has taken many years of hard work and this policy change is well overdue,” said Tom Hickson with the Michigan Catholic Conference.

Mary King from the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency added, “Thanks to everyone who supported the campaign to Raise the Age, from the courageous elected officials who advanced the legislation, to our coalition partners who worked tirelessly to see this through.”

Michigan legislators were a big part of the team, as well, including fiery state Sen. Pete Lucido (R-Shelby Twp.) and energetic rookie Rep. Graham Filler (R-DeWitt). As the chairs of their respective Judiciary committees, they helped lead the early charge on moving Raise the Age legislation, and when differences arose, kept working in the trenches to see a compromise reached.

Longstanding Raise the Age supporters, including Reps. Roger Hauck (R-Midland), Leslie Love (D-Detroit) and Vanessa Guerra (D-Bridgeport) and Sens. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) — and her husband, former Rep. Harvey Santana, also deserve a lot of credit. And we certainly owe our gratitude to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) for not simply allowing a vote on the legislation, but for making it a priority of theirs.

Anquan Boldin | Staff Sgt. Thaddeus Harrington, Maryland National Guard Public Affairs Office, Wikimedia Commons

Raise the Age is so important, we even got a real Detroit Lion to join our squad. Retired NFL wide receiver and youth advocate Anquan Boldin helped push for action on the legislation, co-authoring an op-ed in April on Raise the Age and even writing a letter to the governor in support of the bills. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of amazing things in my career, but getting to work with a Detroit Lion and a former member of my fantasy football team is definitely up there, especially on such a great cause.

I also had the honor of being in the room with other advocates and policymakers when Whitmer signed the Raise the Age bills on Thursday. Luckily for everyone involved, I decided to save my elaborate touchdown dance until I was in the privacy of my own home but I think Anquan Boldin would’ve been proud. 

A big win like this is as invigorating as a Gatorade bath and the League is looking to keep up the momentum on the other important justice reforms before the Legislature. And I certainly could get used to this feeling of winning. 

Maybe that Lions 2020 Super Bowl isn’t so far-fetched after all.

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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.