ST. JOSEPH — Now that it appears inevitable that 17-year-old offenders in Michigan will one day be treated as juveniles in the court system, local court officials are sorting out the possible ramifications, good and bad, of the proposal that is expected to become law.

Judges and court administrators are saying “It’s about time,” while some prosecutors say the system is fine the way it is.

“Seventeen-year-old children who break the law in Michigan are currently being prosecuted as adults. This means they are funneled through a system designed for adults, including prisons which can be dangerous for teens,” said Van Buren County Courts Chief Judge Kathleen Brickley. 

“The (raise the age) legislation puts Michigan in line with most other states by instead diverting these children into the juvenile system. In doing so, the legislation recognizes the science behind juvenile brain development, the evidence that teens are more likely to commit additional crimes if they are prosecuted as adults, and the vast array of specialized treatment services available in the juvenile court system,” Brickley added.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary and Criminal Justice Committee backed a package of bipartisan bills that would raise the age at which criminal defendants would be automatically treated as adults,  from 17 to 18. 

The backing came after a key component of the deal was added that will see the state pay the full amount of counties’ additional juvenile justice costs associated with raising the age at which offenders are handled by the juvenile system. 

The law is expected to hit the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the coming weeks, and would take effect in October 2021, so courts have time to prepare. Michigan would become the 46th state to increase the age of juvenile offenders. Prosecutors will still be able to automatically try 14-, 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds as adults for certain violent crimes, such as murder and rape. They also have the option of petitioning for others to be waived to adult court, but the treatment of 17-year-olds as adults in the court system would no longer be automatic.

Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic said he doesn’t see a real downside to the current system. 

“I realize there are very few states that have 17-year-olds included as adults, but I don’t know that that makes a change valid. I foresee an increased number of waivers being sought to adult court on some 17-year-olds,” Sepic said. 

Berrien County Trial Court Chief Judge Gary Bruce said he supports the legislation and thinks it’s the right thing to do.

“All the research suggests that 17-year-old’s brains are not fully developed and this can result in criminal behavior. Most are still capable of being treated within the juvenile justice system,” Bruce said.

The local judges said they’re still looking at the numbers, but at this point do not see a need for an additional judge in their juvenile courts. And Elvin Gonzalez, administrator for the Berrien County Trial Court’s Family Division, said he does not foresee overcrowding of the county’s juvenile center. Van Buren County does not have a juvenile center and instead contracts with other counties to house juveniles.

Gonzalez said most of the 17-year-old offenders in Berrien County are first-time offenders and most likely won’t need to be placed in the juvenile detention center. 

He said about 240 17-year-olds a year are booked into the Berrien County jail, and most are for non-violent offenses such as retail fraud. He said that at any given time, there are fewer than 20 misdemeanor probationers and fewer than 10 felony probationers, and he would not expect to see a huge increase. 

“I don’t see a need for an additional judge, but we may need to expand our tether capacity, or possibly add probation staff. We’re gathering the data now to analyze what will be needed,” Gonzalez said.

“As a juvenile court administrator with 35 year working in the juvenile justice system, I think this is a good move and the right move to have 17-year-olds under our jurisdiction. The juvenile system has the ability to effectively intervene and provide services that can help them into adulthood,” he added.  “We have established very effective methods for risk needs assessments, and these processes help us identify how best to target (the offenders) and match them with really good quality treatment and rehabilitation services and reduce their risk of re-offending.” 

One such service in Berrien County is the Community Restorative Board, developed by the court’s Family Division and launched in 2001.

This service is a diversion program for juveniles used as an alternative to formal court intervention. The CRB consists of a diverse group of volunteers who live in Berrien County. They have been trained by the court and have the authority to use their discretion in working with juveniles to find appropriate solutions. 

A panel meets with the offender, the offender’s parents and often the victim of the offense to talk about an agreement that will guide the juvenile in making amends to the victim and the community. 

Once an agreement is reached, everyone involved signs a contract that contains specific terms and conditions the juvenile must follow to complete the programs. The juvenile is monitored by a probation officer, and successful completion results in dismissal of charges.

Terms of a contract may include things such as performing community service. writing a letter of apology, writing essays on particular topics and paying restitution. 

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa