Lawmakers push to keep juveniles out of adult prisons

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

About 74 teens who were not old enough to sit on a jury are serving their sentences next to some of the state’s roughly 45,000 adult prisoners.

Mixing teens and adults in prison is a bad formula, juvenile justice advocates say, and they’re pushing the state to increase to 18 the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults.

“Numerous studies have shown that a young person’s brain is not fully developed until their mid-20s,” said Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit. “The human mind for adolescents isn’t really formed yet. Impulse control for (adolescents) isn’t really formed. They become worse (offenders) when they walk into the facility with adults.”

He and 13 other lawmakers are sponsoring a package of justice reform bills that include a measure to keep youngsters out of adult prisons. Michigan is one of just nine states that allow authorities to prosecute 17-year-olds as adults, Santana said.

The bill would still give discretion to a judge to allow a child 14 and over who is charged with a felony to be tried in criminal court after an investigation is completed and a motion is filed by a criminal prosecutor.

The bill also would require the Michigan Department of Corrections to develop policies for age-appropriate out-of-cell activities and outdoor exercise for young inmates under the age of 21. The package of bills is pending in the Michigan Senate’s Judiciary Committee and won’t be taken up for discussion until September.

Santana said putting teens in prison with adults is not a good public policy and “only adds to a teen’s psychological trauma.”

“We’ve obviously behind the curve,” he said. “(Youngsters) become worse when they are mixed in with adults.”

Michigan’s handling of teen inmates convicted as adults has been under fire since a class-action lawsuit was filed in 2013 alleging male teens were subjected to sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of adult inmates as well as prison officers. Corrections officials and state attorneys have said they believe the claims in the pending lawsuits are false.

Kristen Staley, the co-author of the report Youth Behind Bars said Michigan is “really out of date” when it comes to sentencing juveniles. The two-year report was funded by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.

“It’s been a big problem for a number of years,” she said. “We have a major problem having children in our adult prisons.”

She said children 17 and younger should not be placed in adult prison even if they are not sharing cells with older prisoners and that there have been documented incidents of physical and sexual abuse of teens as a result.

Michigan Corrections officials said youngsters are not sharing the same cells or buildings with adult prisoners, but that they are sent to the same facility. Even if a youngster is charged with a heinous crime and is tried in a circuit court, they would not be housed in an adult prison until they turn 18.

Parents afraid for daughter

Parents of young offenders such as 17-year-old Roksana Sikorski say reforms are sorely needed.

Laurene Sikorski and her husband, Jeff, fought the adult charges the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office filed against Roksana. The teen, who was 15 at the time of the incident in October 2014, pleaded guilty seven days after her 17th birthday to assault with intent to commit murder.

Roksana was sentenced in March to 10-20 years behind bars for slashing her brother’s neck and also plotting to kill her family with her adult boyfriend.

The couple said their daughter suffered from emotional and psychological issues stemming from her early childhood in Poland.

“She’s very impulsive and was easily swayed by an older individual,” Laurene Sikorski said.

She said she’s afraid for the well-being of her daughter, who is 80 pounds and stands 4 feet 11 inches tall, in the female adult prison.

“I don’t think she’s safe. The younger (prisoners) are easy targets,” said Laurene Sikorski, who said she visits her daughter frequently at the facility where she is kept with other teenaged inmates.

Prosecutors: Move slowly

Prosecutors are urging lawmakers to proceed cautiously.

“This represents a dramatic change in our criminal justice system, and while worthy of debate, should be approached slowly and thoughtfully,” said Michael Wendling, president of Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. “For such a change to take place, significant infrastructure and suitable programming needs must be put in place.”

Last year, 11 juvenile inmates renewed a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse from adult prisoners, but it was dismissed by the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Corrections officials say young inmates under 18 are kept at the Thumb Correctional Facility. Adult prisoners are also housed there, but separately. Since 2012, the state has separated adult and young inmates at Michigan prisons.

Santana said more than 20,000 juveniles in Michigan have shared prison time with adults in the past decade. Many of them, he said, were locked up for non-violent offenses and had no prior juvenile record.

But some county officials are balking at parts of the package of bills.

“It’s putting the cart before the horse,” said George Miller, the Health and Human Services director of Oakland County. “While it’s the right thing to do ... they’re doing it without understanding the ramification of funding.”

Miller said while he believes getting youngsters out of adult prisons “is absolutely the right thing to do” he’s concerned about placing older youthful offenders with younger children.

“I’ve got 12-year-olds we contend with, and now we’re dumping 17-year-old in there with them. They’re going to suck the air out of the room,” Miller said. “It’s going to be a shift backward.”

Miller said he is concerned about how much more money he will need to operate Children’s Village, the Waterford facility for youth offenders and other troubled youngsters.

More time, staff needed

Brian Manning, deputy director of the Department of Children and Family Services of Wayne County, says his department would need time to add space for incoming youngsters from the County Jail and to hire more staff.

“This is the right thing to do. This is something we’re happy to do,” said Manning about the expected changes. “We think we would be able to handle the additional (inmates).”

Wayne County will need at least $1 million more at the county’s Juvenile Detention Facility to add support staff for the anticipated population increase, Manning said.

The juvenile facility’s annual operating budget is $25 million.

Manning said the state of Michigan also will bear some of the increased costs because it partially reimburses the county for the care, custody and treatment of delinquent youth.

Currently, the 17-year-old youth offenders are put in a separate area of the Wayne County Jail.

Santana said if the bills are passed, the measure won’t go into effect for two years to give local governments time to prepare for the changes. He added the state will pay $500,000 for a grant to study how much the changes will cost counties, about 10 in the state, that will be affected by the new law.

The Rev. W.J. Rideout III, a community activist with the Defenders of Truth and Justice organization, said he supports the efforts to keep teens from sharing prison facilities with adult inmates.

“The child should be treated as such,” said Rideout who has been involved in efforts to crack down on violence in the city of Detroit.

(313) 222-2027