STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Could criminal justice reform be just around the corner?

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If you're 17 and you commit a crime in Michigan, you are automatically sentenced as an adult. You can't even vote yet, and you're sentenced as an adult. There are only nine states that try 17-year olds as adults, and Michigan is one of them. According to The Marshall Project, there seems to be some momentum to "raise the age" of an adult from 17 to 18 in North Carolina, New York and Wisconsin. Michigan seems to be among the holdouts.

Michigan's prison system is very expensive, and it disproportionately impacts young black men and women. We have the second highest number of juveniles locked up in prison for life, second only to Pennsylvania. (If you missed our State of Opportunity special on juvenile justice, I urge you to take a listen.)

But there is some good news here. There seems to be a growing political momentum around the country to enact some kind of criminal justice reform. President Barack Obama just last week became the first ever sitting president to visit a federal prison, where The Washington Post reports he "met with young inmates 'who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made.'" The article continues:

The president said there must be a distinction between young people “doing stupid things” and violent criminals. Young people who make mistakes, he said, could be thriving if they had access to resources and support structures “that would allow them to survive those mistakes.” “When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made,” Obama said.

Obama called for shorter sentences for non-violent offenders, the restoration of voting rights for felons who have served their time, and a general overhaul of how we treat low-level offenders. The President has said he hopes Congress sends him some criminal justice reform legislation before he leaves office, and he just may get his wish. According to CNN, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner just came out in favor of reform:

House Speaker John Boehner announced his commitment to getting people out of prison "who really don't need to be there" and signaled his commitment to bringing justice reform legislation before the full House chamber for a vote.

And over in the Senate, Michigan Democrat Gary Peters last week introduced bipartisan juvenile justice reform legislation that "seeks to end the school-to-prison pipeline." In a statement, Senator Peters called the Youth PROMISE Act "a comprehensive, community-based approach towards tackling and preventing violence in our schools and neighborhoods." The bill also calls for the establishment of a National Research Center for Proven Juvenile Justice Practices to research evidence-based practices "related to juvenile delinquency and criminal street gang prevention or intervention."

Growing political momentum indeed.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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