New law gives some 17-year-old criminals another chance

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker is spending this week sorting through the files of 123 17-year-olds with pending criminal cases in the county.

By Friday, he must decide which should stay in adult court, where they could go to prison, and which should be moved down to juvenile court, where they’ll get another chance.

“We’ve got homicides, we’ve got armed robberies, we’ve got carjackings, we’ve got down to a domestic violence,” Becker said Monday.

Under current state law, anybody 17 and older is considered an adult in the eyes of the court system, but that changes to 18 and older on Friday under the state’s new Raise the Age law.

Some of the case files being reviewed by Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker. (Sept. 27, 2021)

That is leaving prosecutors and courts across the state scrambling to decide what to do with 17-year-olds already in the system.

The new law comes at a time when juvenile crime is on the rise.

“We’ve had a rising spike in juvenile crime over the COVID-19 (pandemic),” Becker said. “There’s been a lot more juvenile offenders, a lot more serious juvenile offenders and we see an escalation of behavior.”

On Monday, at News 8’s request, Becker read through the file of one of the 17-year-olds already in the system.

“It’s a receiving and concealing stolen property, resisting and opposing a police officer and reckless driving — three or four low-level felonies,” he said of the charges faced by the teenager.

And this teenager already has a juvenile history: burglary, receiving stolen property, stealing a firearm.

“That’s probably one I’m going to keep in juvenile court,” Becker said. “Give him another chance because, unfortunately, we see a lot worse.”

Becker said he expects about half of the 17-year-olds on his list will go to juvenile court.

“If you decide to keep them in juvenile court, they’re not going to get a permanent record, won’t be out in public, hopefully gives them another chance to hopefully correct their behavior,” he said.

The most dangerous, he said, or those with long records, he’ll push to keep in adult court. He could do that through automatic waivers or by asking a juvenile court judge to waive them to adult court, he said.

The law, he said, wouldn’t make any difference in cases like the January 2019 murder of East Kentwood High School student James King during a marijuana deal. Four of the five suspects were 17. Two are in prison, one of those for second-degree murder.

The prosecutor said that juvenile court already has hired five new probation officers to handle the new caseload.

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