Cost concerns may slow juvenile justice reforms

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Lansing — The optimism of approving legislation proposed last week to alter how Michigan deals with teen offenders is coming up against the harsh realities of its potential costs.

The House Committee on Criminal Justice last week took testimony on a package of juvenile justice bills, including a measure to raise the age that teens are tried as adults from 17 to 18. Speakers were overwhelmingly supportive of the proposals, saying they would reduce the number of repeat offenders and provide a corrections system more in tune with the rest of the nation.

On Tuesday, however, representatives heard from law enforcement, corrections and state officials who criticized the idea of overhauling a system without a clear funding plan. While most speakers started their comments by saying they had no “philosophical” opposition to raising the age, they provided blunt assessments of the outcome.

“This could break the bank for some of our counties,” said Dana Gill, director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Association of Counties. “If this is an important change to make, then we have to talk about investment.”

A bipartisan group of representatives introduced several bills last week that included proposals to:

■Raise the age, from 16 to 17, for those who would be subject to juvenile code disposition for violations of personal protection orders.

■Require those up to 17 years old charged with a crime to be transferred to the family division of Circuit Court.

■Change the criteria for judges in the automatic sentencing of juveniles as adults for certain crimes.

■Prohibit juvenile inmates from being housed among adult prisoners.

It’s a slate of bills that would move Michigan from an approach to youth offenders that dates to the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, when lawmakers gave prosecutors increased latitude to try teens as adults, while lessening the input of judges. The moves came amid a perceived wave of teen crime and concerns about the development of young “super-predators.”

But keeping teen felons out of adult prisons, setting up new juvenile facilities, and making more diversion and rehabilitation programs available comes at a cost many officials see as beyond their fiscal scope.

William Forsyth, Kent County’s prosecuting attorney, summed up his opposition: “The question becomes, how do you pay for the (new) system? Simply changing the age to 18 ... doesn’t address some of the underlying problems with the juvenile system.”

A lack of juvenile facilities has forced Kent County to send many teen offenders Arizona, Nevada or Pennsylvania for housing at a rate of $150 a day, Forsyth said. That can cost the county more than $50,000 a year per offender.

“And that’s a bargain,” he said.

The new package of bills would ultimately dump more teens into that stressed system, argued several others — all citing the high cost of juvenile detention and treatment.

Brian Manning, Wayne County’s deputy director of health, veterans and community wellness, crunched the numbers on the impact, arriving at an increase of at least $7.5 million.

“We are not positioned to absorb that amount,” he said.

Rep. Peter Lucido, a Shelby Township Republican who is a package co-sponsor, questioned those testifying Tuesday about how the state’s juvenile resources are being used and discovered that several facilities are not operating at full capacity.

Lois DeMott, who works with the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, argued that fixing the current system may wind up saving money by preventing repeat offenses.