By BROOKE KANSIER
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan’s tough approach to youth crime is under scrutiny.
It’s the result of a bigger problem, says Kathleen Bailey, a professor and director of the School of Criminal Justice at Grand Valley State University.
The problem boils down to “get tough” policies Michigan and many other states passed in the 1980s and 1990s on juvenile crime, she said. Those laws created policies like “adult time for adult crime,” which encouraged charging youth as adults ¬– often with stricter sentencing and more jail time – in the wake of what many people feared was a massive juvenile crime wave.
“What happened is you got these unforgiving sentences and policies against youth offenders that were kind of built by a lie – the Armageddon never came,” Bailey said.
The problem is the slew of ramifications the policies caused.
Regulations included truth in sentencing, strict sentencing guidelines and changes that eased the process of charging youth as adults by removing a judge’s discretion and giving prosecutors power to try any child of any age in adult courts.
“It takes that discretion away from the juvenile court to determine whether that individual can be rehabilitated or not in that system,” said Jennifer Pilette, a former referee for the Wayne County Juvenile Court in Detroit. Pilette is now an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School and the Wayne State University Law School.
Other issues revolve around a decision to automatically charge 17-year-olds as adults –today, Michigan is one of only nine states that do so.
“They can’t buy tobacco, they can’t do things that are adult-like, but they charge them adult-like,” said Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, who spent 30 years as a defense lawyer. “Michigan is a leader in some things, and a follower in others.”
Lucido is sponsoring a bill that could change that policy and exempt 17-year-olds from automatic inclusion in adult courts.
The majority of youth prosecuted as adults in Michigan are first-time offenders charged with nonviolent crimes.
When “get tough” policies proved ineffective and more cognitive research was published, most states changed or replaced their laws, and federal guidelines have followed a similar trend to a more rehabilitation-based youth system.
“To think that kids can differentiate between understanding why they do the things they do – they can’t,” Grand Valley’s Bailey said. “They’re just not rational thinkers. We won’t let you drive until 16 and you can’t drop out of school until 16 because you’re not a rational thinker, but if you kill somebody at 15, you’re all of a sudden a rational thinker. It doesn’t make sense.”
Despite this, Michigan did little to update its laws, said Michelle Weemhoff, deputy director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency in Lansing. The council is an advocacy organization that focuses on improving juvenile and criminal justice policy.
That might be because the state hasn’t actually tracked the number of youth tried as adults, she said.
“It’s hard to talk about these policy decisions if the state is not consistently tracking them,” she said.
So the council decided to do something about it. It published a Youth Behind Bars report that looked at numbers not considered since the 1990s.
It found that over the past 10 years, 20,291 people under 18, most with no prior record, have been convicted as adults in Michigan. While most of them committed nonviolent offenses, 10,531 were put behind bars.
And those sentences are served in adult prisons, not rehabilitative, youth-focused juvenile facilities.
“Juvenile placements tend to be much more developmentally appropriate than adult prisons. They offer programming within the placement that works on cognitive restructuring, anger management, whatever their assessment identifies as their major need,” Weemhoff said.
“The adult system has none of that. They don’t have a comprehensive assessment, they do not have probation officers that are trained on youth development, or mental health or trauma consideration, the way they would in the juvenile courts.”
They are more likely to reoffend after release and suffer problems in prison, Weemhoff continued.
“They have to adapt to a culture that is really based on violence, and so young people are more likely to get involved with gangs inside, to seek protection because they’re incredibly vulnerable to experiencing violence – physical and sexual violence. Young people have the highest rates of sexual victimization while in prison,” she said.
The problem has become so prevalent that the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act recently set guidelines requiring those under 18 to be completely separated from adult inmates.
Young inmates also miss valuable school time: About 80 percent of prisoners incarcerated as youth don’t have a high school diploma or GED.
And for all of those convicted, incarcerated or not, there are lifelong consequences. A felony conviction can keep individuals from getting student loans and pursuing higher education, finding employment or securing reliable housing.
But with Lucido’s proposed legislation¬ – part of a larger bill package that would overhaul youth justice – Michigan’s policies could see a major change.
Introduced in October, the bill package would end automatic adult status for 17-year-olds, prohibit the placing of youth in adult prisons, significantly increase funding for community-based rehabilitation programs for young people and give judges more discretion to consider the severity of an offense and past criminal records when making decisions. The package is supported by 14 sponsors and dozens of co-sponsors from both parties.
“I’m very proud of this package,” Lucido said. “I stand with my legislators on both sides of the aisle because it’s in the best interest of the children, it’s in the best interest of justice, it’s in the best interest of society.”
Lucido said the goal is not to take away discretion from prosecutors or the courts, or to give youth a free pass.
“I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be punished for their crime. It’s a crime, it’s against the law,” Lucido said. “But because of their brain not being fully developed, they haven’t been able to process and appreciate their actions. They shouldn’t be warehoused with a bunch of repeat offenders.”
Lucido said existing policies waste taxpayer money.
“It’s really hurting the taxpayers and it needs reform. And now it needs reform more than ever because dollars are tight,” he said.
The legislation is awaiting hearings in the House Criminal Justice Committee.
By BROOKE KANSIER