June 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

THE JUSTICE SYSTEM

Stop criminalizing our kids

Over the past 10 years, Michigan has funneled over 20,000 youth under age 18 into the adult criminal justice system, mostly for non-violent offenses. Prosecuting, sentencing and incarcerating kids as adults has proven to do more harm than good. It’s time for the state to re-evaluate whether reactionary policies implemented generations ago are really in the best interest of children, taxpayers and public safety.

Michigan is one of only 10 remaining states that automatically prosecute 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system. Since 2003, over 95 percent of youth convicted as adults were 17 years old at the time of the offense. Nearly 60 percent were convicted of non-violent offenses and 58 percent had no prior record of juvenile delinquency.

This antiquated law was created over a century ago, before Michigan even had a juvenile justice system. Today, Michigan’s juvenile courts have access to decades of research about what works to prevent and treat youth crime and are well-equipped to provide age-appropriate services, especially for those with serious treatment needs.

Unfortunately, the state prohibits any child convicted as an adult from accessing rehabilitative services only available in the juvenile justice system, even if they desperately need the help.

■ 78 percent of youth in adult prison had lost a friend to murder and 48 percent had lost a family member to murder;

■ 44 percent of youth in prison experienced the child welfare system and were placed out of their home an average of 11 times;

■ Over half entered the corrections system with substance abuse or alcohol issues; nearly a quarter had prior mental health diagnoses;

■ 48 percent entered the corrections system with a tenth grade education or lower.

Once convicted as an adult, teens are placed on adult probation, in jail, or in prison — options never intended for children. As a result, kids in adult facilities face an increased risk of violence, sexual assault and suicide.

Youth are also more likely to be disruptive in prison, leading to misconduct citations and even time in segregation, which can be one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can endure.

Because most youth are charged with non-violent offenses, they typically return to the community within five years. But can we actually expect that a lack of age-appropriate programming and increased victimization and trauma will help young people gain the skills they need to be successful in the community?

On the contrary, youth incarceration actually increases violent crime. Research shows that youth exiting the adult system are 34 percent more likely to re-offend, re-offend sooner, and escalate to more violent offenses than youth in the juvenile justice system.

It is irresponsible to continue investing in policies proven to threaten public safety.

Still, Michigan spends hundreds of millions of dollars on youth incarceration. The average cost of housing a prisoner in Michigan is about $34,000 a year. Costs are compounded when factoring in the barriers that come with an adult conviction. A criminal record makes it more difficult to secure housing, find stable employment, and continue education. A young person convicted in the adult system can expect to earn 40 percent less over their lifetimes, translating to a loss of state tax revenue.

Without means to support themselves, it’s likely they will rely upon public assistance. If recidivism predictions hold true, taxpayers will bear the costs of the revolving door to prison.

In order to be “smart on crime,” we need to rethink our current justice policies.

First and foremost, Michigan should raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18 years old.

This would allow 17-year-olds the opportunity to access rehabilitative services available in juvenile court and hopefully curb future offending.

It is also recommended that youth under 18 be removed entirely from adult jails and prisons; juvenile programs are more equipped to handle these high risk cases and have the capacity and willingness to serve them.

MCCD’s report, Youth Behind Bars, can be found at www.miccd.org.

Michelle Weemhoff is the associate director for the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to improving policies and systems aimed at reducing crime.