Hopeful, promising change is in the works for children in Michigan's criminal justice system being sentenced as adults. Currently being vetted in the Michigan House of Representatives is the "Youth in Prison" bill package—a package of 21 bi-partisan bills, HB 4947-4966, aimed at keeping youth out of our adult criminal justice system.
In a conversation I had with State Rep. Harvey Santana (D), who is spearheading the legislative effort, he explained that Michigan is "one of nine states" that still tries to convict juveniles as adults.
“This is a result of the 1990's 'Get tough on crime' period when every month there was a new felony for a new offense,” says Santana. As he explains, in actuality, “Sentencing guidelines don’t do anything to detract youth from violence.”
The two key measures of the bill package are to raise the age from 17 to 18 where a defendant is automatically tried as an adult, and to prohibit juveniles from being housed in jail or prison with adults. Under the bill package, Santana makes it clear: “No one under 18 can be housed in the MDOC (Michigan Department of Corrections).”
From across the aisle, State Rep. Kurt Heise (R) has worked as a partner with Rep. Santana on the legislative effort. Heise explains, and from a policy perspective agrees, “A civilized society should not be putting people under 18 in prisons with adults. Juveniles serving with adults does not help to rehabilitate people.”
At the age of 17, Toni Bunton of Detroit was caught up as the getaway driver in a marijuana delivery scheme that resulted in robbery and felony murder charges. She was convicted and sentenced to 25-50 years in prison.
In prison, she was repeatedly raped and abused, until after 16 years served, Gov. Jennifer Granholm commuted her sentence. Bunton stated to the Free Press: “I deserved to be punished, but I did not deserve to be put in adult facilities. I was abused for years.”
A large and broad-based coalition of groups and individuals are working to make sure this package of bills is thorough so that our criminal justice system can effectively serve the needs of juveniles. The package has had an intitial hearing in the House Criminal Justice Committee and according to Santana, will have more hearings on February 17.
Santana hopes to have the bills signed into law by the end of the year. That might sound like a strong dose of optimism to some, but optimism is exactly what we need in our Michigan Legislature if juveniles in our criminal justice system stand a chance at getting a better deal.