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Kids in Crisis: A new law, and a 'statewide panic' over where to send juvenile offenders

Family Court Administrator Kristyn Brendel poses for a portrait in an 86th District Court in Traverse City on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. (Photo: Mike Krebs/Record-Eagle)
Mike Krebs/Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Family Court Administrator Kristyn Brendel poses for a portrait in an 86th District Court in Traverse City on Friday. (Photo: Mike Krebs/Record-Eagle)

Michigan recently raised the age at which someone can be tried in adult court from 17 to 18. Suddenly the state needed a place to put 17-year-olds, who were now considered juvenile offenders. "It wasn't really planned for," one court administrator said.

This is the second in of a three-part series on Michigan's juvenile justice system, co-reported by IPR News and the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Read the first part of "Kids in Crisis."

TRAVERSE CITY — Every time Grand Traverse Family Court adds a new case, Court Administrator Kristyn Brendel said she gets a sinking feeling in her gut — especially if juveniles are involved who need to be placed in a detention facility.

Two simple questions need to be answered immediately, Brendel said: Where will they go? And when?

But in Michigan, particularly in the Northern Lower Peninsula, the answers to those simple questions aren't so simple. That's because there aren't enough places to accommodate the number of kids coming in to the juvenile justice system.

These young people are being sent to a mental health treatment facility or a detention center because they are deemed a danger to themselves or their community, she said. The primary goal is to rehabilitate them and keep them close to their community, parents and friends.

It's not like the adult court system and, last year, a major shake-up took place to ensure that the adult and juvenile detention systems don't mix.

According to Brendel, the beginning of the juvenile detention bed shortage crisis started with the passing of the “Raise the Age” legislation in Michigan, on Oct. 1, 2021.

The legislation was part of a national movement for all 50 states to increase the age at which a juvenile can be tried in the court as an adult to the age of majority for everything else in the United States: 18.

In Michigan, before that new law was passed, 17-year-olds were considered adults in the eyes of the court system. That meant, prior to the new law, 17-year-olds in Michigan could be housed in adult prisons and jails.

But, when the clock struck midnight on Oct. 1, 2021, the new law took effect.

Brendel said the system in Michigan was not ready for it.

Suddenly, all of the 17-year-olds sitting in adult jails immediately needed someplace else to go, flooding family courts across the state.

“It was kind of like a statewide panic to get these kids out of jail,” Brendel said. “They [the juvenile detention facilities] didn’t have room for all the kids. It wasn’t really planned for.”

Grand Traverse County had one 17-year-old in jail when “Raise the Age” took effect, Brendel recalled. They sent the juvenile home to be placed on a tether, which is an at-home monitoring device.

“But, I don’t know what we would’ve done for more,” she said. “Because there were no beds available for our kids.”

A year later, they are still grappling with that shortage of detention center beds.

Read more, from the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

This story was co-reported by Elizabeth Brewer and Michael Livingston, in partnership with the Traverse City Record-Eagle and Report for America.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.