By CAITLIN McARTHUR
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan’s tough juvenile justice laws pose a safety risk for teens, produce repeat offenders and can actually make crime worse, reform advocates say.
Michigan is one of just nine states to automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults, and it has no minimum age at which a person may be sentenced as an adult. Both policies are at odds with national trends and have legislators concerned the state’s approach is outdated.
A report released last year by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency found youth incarcerated in the adult prison system faced an extreme risk of violence, sexual assault and self-harm.
The study of state trends from 2003 to 2013 also found the state lacked appropriate rehabilitative services for young people exiting the prison system, making them more violent and more likely to reoffend than young people in the juvenile justice system.
New legislation expected to be announced at an early April forum and introduced in the House of Representatives later this spring will take a bipartisan approach to reforming Michigan’s approach to juvenile justice.
The package of bills would place 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, responding to calls from experts and advocates who say kids should not be sentenced as adults. More than 20,000 people younger than 18 were charged as adults from 2003-13, according to the crime and delinquency council’s 2014 Youth Behind Bars report.
The legislation is the result of a partnership between the Crime and Delinquency Council and Reps. Harvey Santana, a Detroit Democrat, and Troy Republican Martin Howrylak.
Renee Edmondson, a legislative assistant who works for Santana, said the legislator felt Michigan was out of touch with the national trend on youth crime and needed to follow the lead of other states who are taking a smarter, rather than tougher approach.
“Looking at reworking how youth are treated in Michigan’s criminal justice system just makes sense to him [Santana],” Edmondson said.
The legislation would increase oversight and public reporting of how youths in the adult criminal justice system are treated. Current law doesn’t require the courts or the Michigan Department of Corrections to report on the incidence of youth in the adult criminal justice system.
Other bills would focus on rehabilitation programs for young offenders, allowing judges more discretion, ensuring officials work closer with families and victims, and increasing funds available to counties for community-based youth programs.
The policy changes would work to keep youth out of the prison system and to see those already there have better access to rehabilitative programs, said Kristen Staley, associate director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.
“We treat young people incorrectly when they enter the justice system, and we need to change that,” Staley said. “There is a lot of support around the state for change.”
Staley said a large part of the package would look toward re-aligning funding and resources toward local communities and preventive programs and initiatives. Most 17-year-old offenders are nonviolent and better interventions before they commit crimes could keep them out of the criminal justice system altogether, she said.
“What we are looking for is support, for consideration and really, we’re just looking for understanding that kids aren’t adults and they should be treated as such,” Staley said.
Staley and Santana’s assistant said they expected a lot of support in the legislature for the bills, as incoming lawmakers seem receptive to the changes.
Chris Gautz, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said there are protections in place for the youth currently housed in the adult system under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, but advocates say these protections aren’t enough.
The federal law was introduced in 2003 but not implemented until almost a decade later. It requires separating youths from adult prisoners until they reach 18 and join the general population.
Deborah LaBelle, an attorney from Ann Arbor who is involved in a class action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections over youth prison safety, agrees that young inmates remain vulnerable.
The federal law, LaBelle said, does not deal with issues such as tasering youth, putting youth in shackles, failing to provide treatment, and providing education and basics such as sufficient food for their age, among other protections. LaBelle also argues the law is not being adequately followed in Michigan.
“There is not complete separation from adults,” LaBelle said, “and there is still staff abuse.”
Gautz said the Prison Rape Elimination Act was a voluntary program and the state had complied with the main requirement, which was the separation of youth from the general population.
LaBelle said Michigan’s system does nothing to redirect youth from a life of crime.
“If you wanted a deeply flawed system that has no evidence-based support that it actually addresses the problem in an effective way – from both the cost and rehabilitation and public safety perspectives– you would be hard pressed to find a better example than Michigan,” LaBelle said.
Howrylak could not be reached for comment.
By CAITLIN McARTHUR