Michigan’s Republican-led legislature may be taking a long summer break, but some work is getting done—and in one case, that work could have life-changing benefits. Last week, state legislative leaders announced that they’re close to final agreement on a package of bills to finally change Michigan law and stop incarcerating 17-year-old children in adult jails.
According to legislative leaders, the main issue that remains is ironing out differences in funding mechanisms between the state House and Senate versions of the bills. The Senate’s legislation would require the state to pay 100% of the cost of shifting of 17-year-olds to the various counties’ juvenile justice systems, while maintaining the 50-50 split in funding between the state and county governments for juvenile offenders aged 16 and under.
The House bills, on the other hand, would require the state to pay 100% of the cost for 17-year-olds only until Oct. 1, 2023. After that, reimbursement for all children in the juvenile system would be established during the yearly budget process, thus probably moving back to a 50-50 funding model for all youthful offenders.
“As it stands, the House plan, at least down the road, is an unfunded mandate,“ said Democratic state Rep. David LaGrand, one of the original sponsors of the House legislation. LaGrand told Daily Kos he’s unhappy with both the idea of making Raise the Age an unfunded mandate and the long delay before both the House and Senate versions will take effect. The House version of Raise the Age won’t take effect until Oct. 1, 2021. The Senate bills would take effect nine months earlier, in January 2021.
LaGrand explained that one rationale for kicking the decision on state funding for the bills down the road is that “We don’t know how much it will cost, and [the delay] gives us time to make the counties whole. Either you do that, or you’ve just done a tax shift from the state to the county level.”
Estimates of the possible costs of Raise the Age vary widely. According to a 2018 report by the State of Michigan Legislative Council Criminal Justice Policy Commission, the total estimated cost to Michigan’s counties ranges from almost $17 million to just over $34 million. The state’s estimated bill ranges from $9 million to more than $26 million.
According to LaGrand, figuring out how much Raise the Age will cost the state and its counties is more complicated than most people would think.
For one thing, the juvenile system offers far more services than the adult system—but, on the other hand, the counties’ adult systems will save money because they will be housing fewer people. “[The counties] aren’t going to be double charged,” LaGrand explained. “They’ll be paying 50% of the cost of serving 17-year-olds in the juvenile system, but pick up some savings by not having them in the county jails.”
Other factors in estimating costs include the “much more intensive” services offered to juvenile offenders who are on parole, the fact that “some counties do [juvenile justice] better than others,” and the many moving parts of both the juvenile and the adult systems. In the adult system, for example, “Not everybody … is incarcerated. Some go to prison, some go to jail, some are acquitted, some go straight to parole. You have to bundle together all the possible outcomes” when trying to estimate the difference in cost between the juvenile and the adult systems.
One cost saving may come from avoiding future lawsuits like the one filed by two people who say they were raped as teens while being held in adult facilities. According to a July 9 report by Michigan Public Radio, the lead attorney for the former inmates, Deborah LaBelle, estimated that “there are potentially more than 1,000 young men who experienced sexual abuse between the ages of 14 and 17 while incarcerated in adult prisons in the state.”
As reported by Daily Kos in April, Michigan is one of just four states nationwide that still automatically shunt 17-year-olds into the adult criminal justice system. Or, as one teen from the west side of the state said in a blog post published late last month by the Michigan League for Public Policy, “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.”
In addition to losing out on educational opportunities, teens who are incarcerated in the adult system “are at the highest risk of sexual abuse; they are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youth in juvenile facilities, and are at a greater risk of being held in solitary confinement than they would be in juvenile facilities,” according to a February 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Despite the remaining issues with Raise the Age, LaGrand said that moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system will be “an immense stride forward for justice. … We know this is the moral thing to do, we know we have the treatment mechanisms in place [to serve juvenile offenders], and at some point you just have to move forward.”
Dawn Wolfe is a freelance writer and journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.