Our Editorial: State must protect juvenile offenders

The Detroit News

As Michigan works to revamp various aspects of its criminal justice system, corrections and other officials cannot neglect the state’s youngest offenders. Much could be done to improve the handling of juveniles who get into trouble with the law.

For instance, keeping the teens at home and in local treatment programs would enhance public safety and most important, keep more of them out of prison as adults.

Having a juvenile justice system that works is a logical part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed criminal justice reforms.

One of the governor’s proposals is to help local officials establish programs to determine how best to treat a juvenile offender.

“We agree with the governor that we need good assessment tools that can help lower costs and get kids out of the system faster,” says Bob Wheaton, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services. “We need programs that make sure young people are prepared for school and to enter society, thus keeping the recidivism rate down.”

Also, the department is working with local courts and counties to institute treatment programs. HHS helps local officials measure the success of specific programs by tracking kids after they leave the system.

Livingston County is getting high marks for its cost-effective methods of diverting youthful offenders from prison.

The number of days Livingston County youth were placed out of home was reduced to 4,393 days in 2014 from 12,827 in 2011, a 66 percent drop. This resulted in cost savings of $900,000 a year and cumulative savings of more than $2.1 million. The state and county shared the savings.

Another program assigns therapists to work with the families of troubled youth. The county also brings together a team of people important to the offender to draft a treatment plan.

John Evans, circuit/family court administrator for Livingston County, says counties need upfront money to establish programs judges can refer offenders to. And it’s not cheap. The team treatment program in Livingston required an initial $300,000 investment, and the state only covered half the cost.

But it’s worth it to reap future savings and to divert young offenders from becoming career criminals.

“The finances need to be there to put the programs in place,” says Evans. “If the judges don’t have the programs in place, they can’t place the kids and the alternative is a juvenile center.”

Dealing with juveniles is a critical part of the criminal justice system. State and local officials should invest in programs that have proven track records. This is the best way to keep young offenders from becoming adult offenders.