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
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.
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.