By MATTHEW HALL
Capital News Service
LANSING – The number of juvenile delinquents committed to Michigan detention centers dropped 41 percent from 1997 to 2011, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit policy research group in Washington, D.C.
The trend mirrors a comparable drop nationally in the same period, said Ryan King, a research director with Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project. The reasons vary.
“The real answer is that it’s a state-by-state story,” King said. “Nationally it’s hard to give a consistent answer, but the national drop seems to be a combination of state policy changes, a historic drop in juvenile arrests and, to a lesser extent, demographic changes.”
Policies that keep juveniles in their communities — instead of detention centers — are the top reasons why Ohio, Texas and Connecticut had the biggest drops, he said.
Similar reasons are likely behind the change in Michigan, experts say.
“This is a very positive trend,” said Michelle Weemhoff, the associate director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, a public policy advocacy group.
“About a decade ago, Michigan had a very serious problem,” she said. “We had hundreds and hundreds of kids going into our state facilities, which were bursting at the seams. One of our largest facilities was under investigation for civil and human rights violations.”
That was the privately-run Michigan Youth Correctional Facility in Baldwin, which is now empty.
“We were spending hundreds of millions of dollars – it needed to change for so many reasons.”
Weemhoff said much of the research on juvenile offenders shows that keeping them in communities and out of institutions saves money and lowers the chance that they will commit another crime.
Francisco Villarruel, a professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, agreed.
“When we displace kids from their homes and put them in facilities with other offenders, we may actually be educating them to be criminals,” he said. “At a community-based program, you may be required to show up to a reporting center where there might be tutors.”
Those centers focus on keeping you in and reconnecting you to the community, he said.
Similar programs in Illinois and Pennsylvania have shown that such centers help create support networks that encourage low-level offenders to stay out of crime, Villarruel said.
Wayne County took the lead in Michigan’s trend reversal in 2000, said Weemhoff. The number of adolescents at the state’s W.J. Maxey Boys Training School in Whitmore Lake has since been reduced from more than 700 to five.
Other Michigan counties noticed Wayne’s success.
“Many counties around the state started increasing community-based options for kids who go to court,” she said. “Things like probation, electronic monitoring, family therapy, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment – all done in the community.
“By addressing some very basic family needs, kids were able to stay home and receive the services they need at a much lower cost,” she said.
Placement in detention centers costs about $250 to $300 a day or more, Weemhoff said. A community-based program can cost about $10 to $50 daily.
The trend is promising but there’s still a lot of work to be done, experts said.
If only 20 percent of the 2,000 young people now institutionalized in Michigan were shifted into the community, it could save $44 million the first year, Weemhoff said.
Michikgan should develop a range of services in the community, not only to prevent crimes, but also to help youths returning from placement, she said.
Paul Elam, a project manager at Public Policy Associates Inc., a policy research group in Lansing, said other needs include an effective data collection system for the state, more evidence-based practices like community-based treatments and early access to mental health and substance abuse services before delinquency becomes serious.
And Villarruel said reevaluating the age when adolescents can be charged as adults is also in order.
Michigan can criminally charge 17-year-olds as adults. But there’s a national push to raise the age to 18, he said. That push is based partly on what brain research says about juveniles’ ability to consider long-term consequences of their actions.
Early this year the Legislature appropriated $1 million for in-home “community care” grants for fiscal year 2014. They will help rural counties start their own community programs.
The Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency is pushing to increase that funding for all counties.
By MATTHEW HALL