Whitmer signs bipartisan ‘Raise the Age’ juvenile justice bills into law

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs the Raise the Age package, Oct. 31, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

In a big step for criminal justice reform in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday signed into law legislation that will change the definition of “adult” in the criminal justice system from age 17 to 18. 

The new laws will also establish funding to ensure that age-appropriate rehabilitation services are accessible to 17-year-olds, and prohibit them from being incarcerated in adult facilities.

The “Raise the Age” bill package was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the state House and Senate, and has been in the works for years. The combined total of 18 bills had moved through committees earlier this month before achieving final passage in the Legislature on Oct. 16. As the Advance previously reported, a number of compromises had been made in order to align the two different versions that had been passed in the spring by the House and Senate.

‘Raise the Age’ juvenile justice reform headed for governor’s desk

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was joined by Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) President and CEO Gilda Jacobs, and a host of advocates and legislators who worked on the bills.

Criminal justice activist Briana Moore speaks at the Raise the Age bill singing, Oct. 31, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

The laws will be in effect starting on Oct. 1, 2021. With Missouri also set to change its law by January 2021, there will only be three remaining states in the country – Wisconsin, Texas and Georgia – which automatically regard 17-year-olds as adults in the state’s criminal justice system.

Charging 17-year-olds as adults has “never been the right thing to do,” Nessel said at the bill signing. “I think that what we’re doing today goes a long way toward making this a more just state. These reforms are long overdue.”

Gilchrist, who co-chairs the new Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, agreed.

“By raising the age from 17 to 18, Michigan can lower the nationwide number of young people who have been charged as adults from 76,000 to about 40,000 – it almost cuts it in half,” Gilchrist said. “I want to say that again: 76,000 people under the age of 18 have been charged as adults across the country, and almost half of them were in Michigan.”  

Michigan League for Public Policy CEO Gilda Jacobs speaks at the Raise the Age bill singing, Oct. 31, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

Jacobs said that passing Raise the Age has been one of the nonprofit MLPP’s top policy goals for years.

“Today’s action is a win for child wellbeing and safety, a win for academic and economic opportunity, a win for racial equity, a win for bipartisanship, a win for smart and rehabilitative justice … and a win for our national reputation,” she said.