We, of all industries, understand deadlines. They provide structure, motivation and — especially when there’s an issue — accountability. But we can’t deliver a paper before the stories are written.

And so Michigan finds itself in similar straits with its “Raise the Age” legislation that went into effect Oct. 1 before the system could feasibly implement it.

The legislation, born of good intention and bipartisan support in 2019, keeps 17-year-olds out of adult courts, and restricts Michigan’s criminal justice system from holding anyone aged 17 or younger within 500 feet (or within “sight and sound” as the provision is known) of an adult prisoner.

Young offenders already incarcerated with adults were moved, transferred to a juvenile facility or released. Incoming juveniles need to be placed appropriately. Statistics show housing juveniles separately is safer and lessens the likelihood of re-offense.

The legislation makes sense — only, it doesn’t mesh with the state’s available infrastructure. Traverse City public safety and judicial officials keep running into walls when trying to place juvenile offenders, and while the intention was to create a safer environment for youth, reality means offenders could potentially be further away from family visits and support.

A lack of available facilities nearby meant a Traverse City 16-year-old charged with a local road rage felony is being housed in Macomb County — 250 miles away.

Michigan Center for Youth Justice in Ann Arbor, which lobbied for the change, recently acknowledged the backlog and pointed the finger at communities for not having their own facilities built. But brick and mortar buildings don’t build or staff themselves.

Yes, more facilities are needed. Also yes — the state recently closed Wolverine Secure Treatment Center near Saginaw without saying why and revoked Kalamazoo’s Lakeside Academy after a 16-year-old died after being restrained. Existing facilities also have problems. The state’s juvenile justice system struggles on many fronts, including knowing exactly how many children are inside it, and for what crimes.

What is needed now are creative, common sense solutions that keep juveniles separated from adult offenders and in their own communities, plus a state government that supports and models problem-solving over finger-pointing.

A Task Force on Juvenile Justice will issue more policy recommendations in July 2022 — another deadline. This time, let’s use the time beforehand to do the work, as paving the way with good intentions only won’t go the distance.

Editor's Note: A quote in a recent story requires clarification in both a Oct. 31 article and Nov. 5 editorial about the "Raise the Age" law and difficulty in housing juvenile offenders. Michigan Center for Youth Justice Executive Director Jason Smith does not advocate for building more facilities, but to rather analyze who is being detained and for what to see if youth can be safely treated at home, in their communities. He also believes the bed shortage is because of staffing issues, not the law.   

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