Michigan Senate overwhelmingly approves bill that puts 17-year-old offenders in juvenile system

Michigan would no longer automatically treat 17-year-old criminal defendants as adults under bills that cleared a significant legislative hurdle Wednesday and may soon reach the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The Republican-led Senate, for the first time, overwhelmingly passed "raise the age" measures after not embracing them in past sessions. The GOP-controlled House plans to approve a similar plan Thursday, after which lawmakers will work to resolve differences over how to ensure the state fully funds an additional $17 million to $47 million in annual juvenile justice costs for counties. The legislation would take effect in October 2021.

In 45 states, the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction is 17, while Missouri's law increasing the age to 17 will take effect in 2021. Michigan, Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin draw the line at age 16, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"We want to make sure our kids are not hindered because they've made poor decisions in their youth. This is the right thing to do," said Sen. Sylvia Santana, a Detroit Democrat and sponsor of one of the bills. Past "get-tough-on-crime" laws, she said, "only resulted in more crime" and "having juveniles sexually assaulted in the prison and treated as prey by adults."

Prosecutors could still automatically try 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for certain violent offenses, such as murder and rape.

"These children don't need to end up in prison the rest of their life," said another sponsor, Republican Sen. Peter Lucido of Shelby Township. He said 17-year-olds cannot vote, sit on a jury and need parental consent to get married or enter the military, "but yet we try adults at 17."

The bills won bipartisan approval, with one Republican voting against one measure and another opposing the entire package.

Sen. Jim Runestad of White Lake Township expressed concern that many "very violent" repeat offenders would not be waived into the adult justice system at age 17 and would instead be detained with younger juveniles.

"I wanted more restrictions with the 17-year-olds before we're just going to willy-nilly trust these prosecutors," Runestad said.

Supporters of the legislation argue that 17-year-olds could receive age-appropriate rehabilitation services that are unavailable in the less lenient adult corrections system.

The nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency projects Michigan had more than 7,200 17-year-old defendants in 2016. If they had been treated as juveniles, 763, or 11%, would likely have been moved to adult courts while 4,081, or 56%, would likely have been tried as juveniles. The remaining 33% had traffic violations.

"With expected action in the House this week, this could be headed to the governor's desk soon, and our communities, our courts and our counties can begin preparing for this much-needed transition," said Alicia Guevara Warren, Kids Count Project director at the Michigan League for Public Policy, which advocates for the poor