In Blog: Factually Speaking

This post originally appeared in the Alpena News.

Now that the election is over, hopefully we all can put our political differences aside and return our focus to what unites us, not what divides us.

For me and my colleagues at the Michigan League for Public Policy, we’ve got our eyes squarely on the lame-duck legislative session that begins after Thanksgiving and runs through the end of the year. And, in particular, we are making a final push to see the bipartisan Raise the Age legislation passed to start treating Michigan 17-year-old kids as kids in our criminal justice system, instead of as adults. We need to align Michigan with the 46 other states that already do so, and lame duck is our last chance this year.

“Lame duck” is so named because it is when legislators who are term-limited or have lost their elections make their final mark on Michigan public policy before walking out of the Capitol doors. Lame duck has a bad rap, and most of it has been earned. I worked in the Michigan Senate for nearly a decade, and over the course of five lame-duck sessions, I was literally on the Senate floor for some of the more heated and partisan policy debates our state has ever seen.

But it is also a time when departing lawmakers rise to give farewell speeches, wax nostalgic about their time in office, and think deliberately about the legacy they are leaving.

Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years old is a golden opportunity for all lawmakers to leave a positive and lasting imprint on Michigan’s kids, families, communities and economy, regardless of their political affiliation.

Why should Michigan raise the age?

For starters,we don’t treat 17-year-olds as adults anywhere else in our state law. They can’t vote, serve in the military, go to casinos or buy lottery tickets. But they can be sentenced to adult prisons–often for stupid things we all did at that age–doing irreparable harm instead of rehabilitating, and ruining these kids’ lives instead of reforming them.

Prosecuting youth as adults is harmful to these children and their rehabilitation, threatening public safety and increasing costs to taxpayers. Youth incarcerated in adult facilities are more likely to be physically attacked and sexually assaulted and more likely to attempt suicide than young people in the juvenile justice system. National research also found that youth exiting the adult system are 34 percent more likely to re-offend, re-offend sooner, and escalate to more violent offenses than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system.

Raising the age will also enable 17-year-olds to access education and age-appropriate services. Juvenile courts offer highly effective diversion and community-based programs not accessible in adult court. Because the majority of 17-year-olds have non-violent charges, they would likely respond well to community-based options that are designed to keep kids in school, address underlying treatment needs, and engage the whole family. In addition, 17-year-olds incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system lose 682 educational hours–around five and a half months’ worth–each year.

The reasons to support raise the age are innumerable and universal. Nearly everyone agrees on this, from the Democrats and Republicans who have cosponsored the bills to judges and law enforcement to former offenders. It’s just the right thing to do.

But perhaps the greatest and most important reason is this: The legislation is primed to move and has already started to progress through the legislative process, and failure to act before the end of the year means the process will have to start all over. Any bills not signed by the governor by the end of each two-year legislative term have to be reintroduced in the next term.

The Raise the Age legislation has bipartisan support, including many bill sponsors from both sides. It has already had two productive hearings earlier this fall in the state House Law and Justice Committee and could be taken up as soon as lawmakers return on Nov. 27. And it will likely have bipartisan support–and pass–on the House and Senate floors if the bills can get there.

A lot can–and will–happen in lame duck. But lawmakers have a real opportunity to make sure some good comes out of it. The Raise the Age legislation already passed the full state House last session, but failed to get out of the Senate.

It’s been delayed once before, and we cannot let the latest progress on Raise the Age be squandered in another lame-duck session –kids’ lives depend on it. The chance to raise the age and do something this good, and this far-reaching, is something Michigan legislators should not miss.

For more information on raise the age and how you can help move these bills, go to raisetheagemi.org/take-action.

Alex Rossman is communications director for the Michigan League for Public Policy.

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