Judges react to ‘raise the age’ bills

Legislation would change definition of ‘adult’ in court system

ESCANABA — Michigan may no longer automatically treat 17-year-old criminal defendants as adults under bills that cleared a significant legislative hurdle in April. The three judges that make up the probate, district and circuit courts in Delta County weighed in on the Michigan Senate passed “raise the age” bills. Two judges are adamantly against raising the age, while one judge thinks it is well intended but not thought through.

Probate Judge Perry Lund, who handles the juvenile court system in Delta County, said it’s telling when entities that directly deal with the individuals are opposing the change. He said entities like the Michigan Probate Judges Association, Prosecuting Attorney Association of Michigan, Michigan Association of Family Court Administrators and most law enforcement agencies are opposed to raising the age.

According to the Raise the Age in Michigan website, the “raise the age” movement is a campaign aimed to raise the age of the juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds as the current policy is “at odds with state laws and national and international policies that declare adulthood to begin at age 18.”

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.

“The Michigan juvenile justice system has been with the age requirements for years — we’re geared towards dealing with juveniles up to the age of 16,” Lund said. “These 17-year-olds are going to have totally different issues. They have more issues with drug use, they have more issues involving more serious crimes.”

Circuit Court Judge John Economopoulos said the bills seem like a solution without a problem.

“I think there are measures in place to account for the age of an offender whether it’s youthful trainee status in the adult system or other types of deferred methods of disposition,” he said.

Economopoulos added the type of crimes committed by 17-year-olds tend to be more urgent than other youths in the juvenile court system.

“If anything, the types of offenses that are being committed these days by this population the legislation wants to migrate into the juvenile ranks is a different brand of crime than what used to occur many years ago. They’re more serious offenses. They require more urgent attention, and they require the option of incarceration. They require the option of detention, but the option of detention is limited if not eliminated when you push this population into the juvenile ranks without a corresponding plan for detention,” he said.

For certain violent offenses, such as murder and rape, prosecutors can automatically try 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

Both Economopoulos and Lund agreed the people pushing for the change haven’t really considered the implications the change will have.

The main issue noted by Lund was the lack of funding laid out for the change.

“On everything I have reviewed thus far, there is no real concrete plan on how the change will be funded. You’re talking about a population that was dealt with in district and circuit court and now channeling them into the juvenile court system,” he said.

If 17-year-olds are moved into the juvenile system, Lund said more resources have to be found to provide services like rehabilitation, behavior modification and facilities for juveniles needing out of home placement.

“If a 17-year-old is arrested now, they are brought to jail. With the change, they will no longer be lodged in jail. Juveniles in Michigan, who need to be detained, must be placed in a juvenile detention center. The state of Michigan throughout the years has closed most of the juvenile detention centers that were state run,” Lund said.

The two state run juvenile detention centers still open are the Shawono Center in Grayling, which is a 40 bed facility for boys, and the Bay Pines Center in Escanaba, which is a 45 bed facility for boys and girls.

Lund explained currently Bay Pines is at capacity, so when a Delta County juvenile needs placement they are brought to the Sault Tribe Youth Detention Center in St. Ignace, which is not a state-run facility but complies with federal law. Local law enforcement agencies have to provide the transportation for the juveniles.

“It’s ironic that we have a juvenile detention center right here in Escanaba and the county is about to open a brand new jail that cost over $18 million, but with the change, there’s going to be no place in Delta County to lodge juveniles. Once the Sault Tribe Youth Detention Center is at capacity — and raising the age will likely put them at capacity — where do you detain juveniles? Likely, we will be looking at private detention facilities downstate or they will be left free in the community,” Lund said.

He also noted when a juvenile is placed in a facility, the county the juvenile is from is responsible for half of the detainment costs, any non-routine medical treatments and prescriptions for the juvenile.

The juvenile court is also going to need more funding to provide services for the 17-year-olds outside of placement and transportation.

“We’re going to have to have more court personnel, probation officers and services available if we’re going to absorb 17-year-olds coming into the juvenile justice system,” he said. “That’s going to be expensive and right now the state has no concrete plans on how that’s going to be paid for.”

While Lund and Economopoulos are completely against raising the age, District Court Judge Steven Parks doesn’t feel as strongly about it.

Parks said on paper he doesn’t have any strong objections to raising the age, but does feel the legislation sometimes jumps into things without thinking through all of the possible ramifications.

He explained he doesn’t think many people know that 17-year-olds are considered adults in the criminal justice system.

“I see it all the time, as recently as today, that — I don’t think a lot of young people are even aware that they become adults in the criminal justice system at 17 years old. Nor are they aware the significance,” he said, adding an adult criminal conviction at 17 will have a negative impact on the youth as they enter adulthood.

He explained during his time as judge he has noticed the district court has not had a great deal of 17-year-old offenders.

“It’s gotten even less so since the laws on MIPs were changed and the laws on marijuana changed. So first offense MIP is a civil infraction and the same is true with first possession (of marijuana) for a 17-year-old is a civil infraction. So those — that’s probably the biggest categories, and those I no longer see by virtue in the changes in the law,” he said.

Parks noted if the age is raised and a 17-year-old commits more serious crimes, then he could see more demands being placed on the probate court.