Michigan should not wait for juries to sort out the validity of claims that some juvenile inmates are being raped and brutalized while locked up in adult prisons. A serious investigation aimed at getting to the bottom of the allegations should commence immediately.

Unfortunately, it appears the state is taking a different approach, dismissing the horror stories told by 11 teens as fabrications and fighting the lawsuits filed in federal and Washtenaw Circuit courts.

If the state is wrong, as it was a few years ago in a similar suit filed by abused women inmates, taxpayers could be on the hook for a huge payout. The women in 2009 collected $100 million in a settlement.

The lawsuits target Gov. Rick Snyder, the Corrections Department and 15 wardens from facilities across the state, and contend the 11 teens were raped under the threat of physical violence, physically assaulted or passed around for use as sex slaves by older inmates, sometimes with the knowledge of prison officials.

The state is aggressively fighting the lawsuits, which were detailed in last Thursday’s Detroit News. If it is dead certain the claims are false, that’s a defensible approach.

But it should be 100 percent sure of its position.

The smarter strategy would be for Snyder to order a comprehensive investigation of the charges, conducted independently of the Corrections Department.

There is good reason to suspect Michigan is vulnerable in these lawsuits. It has a harsh policy regarding juvenile offenders.

In 2012, Michigan had the sixth highest number of inmates aged 18 or younger housed in adult prisons. Currently, 74 teens are locked up with adults.

Michigan is one of just nine states where teens are tried automatically as adults, and one of just 15 that allow a prosecutor to file charges against a teen in adult court without going through the juvenile system. Judges in Michigan have little discretion on whether to redirect a case to juvenile court.

This is an overly punitive manner of dealing with youthful offenders that serves neither the teens nor the state well.

Common sense dictates that housing teens with adults is a dangerous proposition. While the state contends it is in compliance with federal law requiring youthful convicts to be separated from adults, the lawsuits call into question how well the state is meeting that requirement.

The corrections process should be about more than punishment. The first priority for handling a teen offender should be rehabilitation.

But a teen in an adult prison is more likely to come out of incarceration in worse shape than he or she went in, and a greater danger to society. The state should explore whether other options for dealing with young convicts are more productive.

Michigan has taken a hard-line approach to dealing with youthful offenders for two decades. This is a good time to assess the impact of that strategy.

The governor should order an investigation into the charges outlined in the lawsuits, with the goal not only of avoiding another huge payout, but also of fixing a youth offender policy that may be dangerously broken.

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