Letter: Time, dollars needed for juvenile justice

Re: The Detroit News’ Dec. 7 editorial, “Raise juvenile age in Michigan”: I agree that Michigan’s juvenile justice system is in disrepair. But the solution the News is pushing, and which is under consideration in Lansing, misses the mark.

If passed, these bills, which include treating most 17-year-old offenders as juveniles, would actually set back Michigan’s juvenile justice system. These bills just do not provide the resources necessary to ramp up the additional services these 17-year-olds would require. As such, the legislation presents Michigan a zero-sum game: Demanding more from the same resources means others — most likely younger offenders — would lose out.

The bills do call for an increase in some funding. However, moving the split on costs for lower-level offenders from 50-50 between the state and counties to 75 percent from the state, this, in all likelihood, will have little impact because there is no guarantee the money will go to “best practice” solutions. Without a comprehensive plan that includes quality assessment of need and addresses current gaps in services, this will have little impact.

Also, the proposed funding ratio does not change for those who require the most extensive treatment: juveniles with serious offenses placed in residential facilities.

Michigan needs to emphasize more programming in primary prevention, juvenile education, drug education and effective law enforcement, community corrections at the local level and expanded substance abuse and mental health treatment. These investments will take money and time as communities either add programs they never previously offered or ramp up existing programs to do more work.

That’s the case being made by the Michigan Association of Counties at the State Capitol, and one which Oakland County Health and Human Services supports.

Why? Check the numbers. In the 1980s, it was typical for a juvenile center’s population to be 80 percent true juvenile offenders and 20 percent youths with mental health issues.

Today, those numbers have flipped. Now, 80 percent of the youths in a residential facility have significant mental health issues, while only 20 percent are merely juvenile offenders.

These bills have done Michigan a service in bringing more attention to the need for additional investment in programs that divert offenders away from adult prisons.

Michigan can improve its juvenile justice system and offer hope to youngsters before they become just another statistic in our prison system — but only if we commit the time and money to help them.

George Miller, Oakland County Department of Health & Human Services