Diverting young offenders from prison is ‘smart justice’

The turn from incarceration of young people to diversion programs is long overdue in Michigan. The state has prioritized trying adolescents as adults, sending many young people sent to state prison where they are put on a path to a careers of crime, unable to access needed educational services and employment opportunities after their release.

The sheer cost of this system is staggering, with per-person spending on prison far higher than that allotted for schools, universities, or virtually any other public service.

Gov. Snyder is correct in pointing to the savings that can come from diversion programs that keep first offenders out of prison and connect them to needed services. This is particularly true of adolescent offenders, who are young enough to be set on a better path through life, if only they are helped through programming, mentors, and access to social work and mental health services.

Good kids can do bad things

Poverty. Child abuse. Neglect. Addiction. Mental illness. Illiteracy. Community violence. Racism. Homelessness.

These are but a few examples of the problems frequently faced by youth who break the law. These kids are not “bad seeds.” Too often, their unlawful actions are merely a reflection of a life plagued by social, economic and familial problems far beyond their control.

Research has shown us that the adolescent brain is still evolving and is not yet well calibrated for making good decisions, even under good circumstances. But for the adolescent who lives with trauma and tragedy, good decision-making may seem an unreachable goal. When the adolescent has been denied safety, security, love and nurturance, brain development can be altered. This means that these young people may be particularly vulnerable to poor decision-making. These bad decisions can haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Our legal system does not reflect our understanding of adolescent brain development. In the present legal environment, young people can be arrested for many reasons, and without intervention, this early involvement with the criminal justice system can mark the beginning of a lifetime defined by recidivism. Without help, these youth plummet into a negative spiral, unable to pull themselves out. This is especially true in lower-income neighborhoods, where there are more opportunities for young people to get into trouble, and fewer resources to address their problems and those of their family.

Stopping the downward spiral

In an attempt to reach out to these struggling youth, the Eastern Michigan University Adolescent Diversion Program (ADP) began in the fall of 2011 as a collaborative project between the Washtenaw Juvenile Court and Eastern Michigan University’s School of Social Work. The primary goal of the program is to reduce the number of youth who enter the juvenile justice system or fall prey to the undercurrents of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Ironically, even though juvenile crime rates have decreased across the nation, the number of young people involved with the juvenile court system continues to be high ‒ particularly for youth of color in low-income neighborhoods. And though the mantra that “justice is blind” permeates the walls of police departments and courtrooms, the reality remains that the youth most likely to be funneled through traditional punitive systems and placed in locked facilities are young offenders who, according to the Anne E. Casey Foundation, “come disproportionately from impoverished single-parent homes located in disinvested neighborhoods and have high rates of learning disabilities, mental health, and substance-abuse problems.”

Justice does discriminate. In addition to race and class, other factors make adolescents more vulnerable to entering the justice system. Youth with behavioral and mental health disorders are also disproportionately over-represented among juvenile offenders. Across the population, according to Reclaiming Futures, which helps youth dealing with drug, alcohol and criminal problems, the overall juvenile mental illness incident rate ranges between 9-21 percent. However, juvenile offenders have an incident rate of between 50-60 percent. Without intervention, they are often confined to juvenile facilities before moving on to a lifetime of school dropout, adult unemployability, homelessness, and adult prison.

"The Adolescent Diversion Project gave me another chance at life; because of that, now I am in my community doing right instead of wrong. That is how ADP helped me get my life back. I also like hanging out with my mentor and going to museums, basketball games, and she give me a better chance at school. A lot more kids I know should be able to have this program, also." – 12-year-old boy in the ADP program

Opening possibilities

The ADP has documented success in helping first-time offenders avoid further police contact, with 93 percent of program participants successfully meeting this goal. The program depends on the efforts of countless people who are passionate about helping youth turn their lives around.
The ADP recruits undergraduate social work student interns to serve as mentors and connects troubled youth with badly needed educational, health, mental-health, and social service resources. Currently, 15-18 youth receive an average of 12 hours of mentorship per week for 13 weeks from the program each year. The program endorses the belief that one person can indeed make a world of difference in the life of a young person in need.

Though the goal is to reduce recidivism and create safer communities, there are many other significant benefits. The mission of the mentoring component is far-reaching and goes well beyond focusing on the youth’s criminal offense. The mentors are trained to understand that a constellation of complex variables play a key role in a youth’s first offense, and mentors use these factors in developing unique action plans for their work with youth.

For some young people, participating in the program means finally having an adult believe in them. For others, participating brings a glimpse into the possibility of attending college. For others, the program means that they have the chance to eat in a restaurant for the first time in their lives. For all, the program means that needs get met and new possibilities are created.

What’s needed

While Michigan has other innovative programs that help young people avoid jail and prison, many more are needed throughout the state. If Michigan is serious about investing in juvenile diversion programs, it would expand funding so that at least some of the cost savings diversion programs create through keeping kids out of state prison are brought back to the community to provide needed services. Even a fraction of the per-day expense of a state prisoner would help create a vibrant network of programs throughout the state.

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David L Richards
Thu, 05/28/2015 - 10:34am
While I don't disagree with the general observations of Dr. Fritz, the need for diversion programs per se is not the problem, as there are already diversion programs, such as the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, which permit young offenders to avoid going to prison or even having a criminal record. The issue is when should these programs apply, and what conditions are going to be attached to provide supervision or support that may be needed in a given case. The more serious concern about existing conditions is the failure of the criminal justice system to properly recognize and deal with mental health issues. This is particularly true since the reforms of the 1980 and 1990s related to mental health have resulted in fewer people being locked up in in mental hospitals, but also left more people on the street with mental health issues leading to criminal behavior and incarceration. These comments come from someone who spent more than 35 years in the trenches as a practicing attorney.
Charles Richards
Thu, 05/28/2015 - 2:39pm
We went much too far with deinstitutionalization. Recoiling from the horrors of mental hospitals, we moved people with severe, intractable mental illness into the community, and then failed to devote adequate resources for their care. They now account for a large percentage of the homeless. And instead of locking them up in mental hospitals, we now lock them up in jails and prisons. Let's rethink things. We should rely more on mental health facilities, including involuntary commitment where necessary and less on the corrections system.
Thu, 05/28/2015 - 1:12pm
Let me get my violin out for the good Doctor. Youth that graduate up to incarceration have been given multiple opportunities by a very patient society. Alternative programs/interventions are not a new phenomenon. A Royal Oak Judge, Keith Leenhouts, began a program in 1960 called Volunteers in Probation. It met with some success and was recognized by Look Magazine in 1967 as the contributing influence in Royal Oak being recognized as one of seven All-American Cities. It is indeed unfortunate that we have to invest so much societal treasure to protect ourselves from those who refuse to pay the cost to be a contributing member, preferring to extract a living from others by way of threat and intimidation. And enough of the excuses of 'Poverty, Neglect, Racism, ...Homelessness.' the good Doctor becomes an enabler with that rhetoric.
robin byrnes
Fri, 05/29/2015 - 10:10am
If the Gov. was really serious about crime and youth then why is he closing Maxey Training School, the facility of last resort for kids?
Carrie R
Fri, 05/29/2015 - 2:00pm
Fri, 05/29/2015 - 11:33am
If I remember correctly, please tell me if I am wrong, a type of diversion program was tried at Maxey several years ago. Some of the kids were separated and placed in a training program of sorts. Then 4 of the kids brutally murdered one of the guards.
Roger Curtis
Sat, 05/30/2015 - 2:08am
Sorry Jeff. First their was no diversion program. Second it was not four youth but one. Third it was not a guard but a social worker that was one on one with a violent youth which is against policy.
Rosemary Doyle
Sat, 05/30/2015 - 9:09pm
I am so happy to hear that our governor has a focus on youth and working to prevent the pipeline to prison from overflowing. I have come to know and understand ways that Restorative Justice practices have been so helpful in stopping the pipeline. My wish is that Restorative Practice practices would be incorporated in all schools and in the Justice System to save our youth. The International Institute for Restorative Practices has documented the success of this process (iirp.org).
Dr. Zeile
Sun, 05/31/2015 - 5:40pm
Dr. Fritz writes, "Ironically, even though juvenile crime rates have decreased across the nation, the number of young people involved with the juvenile court system continues to be high." This is not ironic, it is cause/effect. BECAUSE the court system is dealing with increasing numbers of young criminals (what else do you call someone who has committed a crime?), crime rates have decreased. This is not to say that there is not a role for diversion programs, but criminals are incarcerated to protect the public, NOT to rehabilitate individuals, worthy as that goal is. What is ironic is that we have prevented schools from physical restraint of nascent criminal behavior and so we must fall back on the criminal justice system.