Is Michigan wasting 20,000 teen lives – and at great expense?
A new report says Michigan's criminal justice system – which prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults – can be a breeding ground for juvenile abuse, and is more likely to turn young offenders into repeat criminals.
From 2003 to 2013, more than 20,000 juveniles were jailed, imprisoned or placed on adult probation in Michigan, according to analysis by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD). Some continue to be placed in solitary confinement. And more than half of those who entered the adult system at 17 – about 11,000 offenders – were in for nonviolent crimes.
Since 1996, when “tough-on-crime” legislation gave Michigan prosecutors wide discretion to charge juveniles even younger than 17 as adults, 75 children under the age of 14 have been convicted as adults in Michigan, according to MCCD research.
Once in prison, the report found, “Young people are at the greatest risk of violence and victimization.”
Michigan is among a handful of states that automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults. Most states are moving away from this practice, with studies showing that juveniles are less likely to return to the criminal justice system if they are placed with other juveniles.
The report cites a 2013 lawsuit filed on behalf of seven juvenile prisoners who said they were sexuallly assaulted, including two that allege they were raped repeatedly with knowledge of Michigan Department of Corrections staff. Another case alleges prison staff coerced a prisoner into having sex. It names 10 Michigan prisons.
Michigan officials say they do not collect data on recidivism rates for juveniles. But the report noted that national research shows “this population is a high risk to offend, in part due to the criminal education received while in prison.”
“The system is actually making people more criminal,” said Kristen Staley, who co-authored the report for the Lansing-based nonprofit advocacy organization. Staley said 17-year-olds are best handled by the juvenile justice system because it offers more age-appropriate resources for education, mental health services and alternatives to incarceration.
Michigan an outlier
The report says Michigan is out of step with national trends in juvenile justice. According to the report, Michigan is one of just 10 states that automatically prosecute youth at 17 as adults. Since 2011, Staley said, 11 states passed laws to raise the age for adult prosecution to 18. New Hampshire is poised to do the same and Texas is considering it.
Michigan's prison population includes more than 350 juveniles serving life terms for crimes committed as minors – more than any other state except for Pennsylvania. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that such sentences are unconstitutional. The Michigan State Supreme Court is weighing whether that ruling should apply retroactively to juveniles previously sentenced.
A typical juvenile might enter the state’s adult criminal justice system for a serious but nonviolent crime like breaking and entering or larceny, Staley said. The report found that 28 percent of juveniles prosecuted as adults had a 10th-grade education, and 15 percent a 9th-grade education when they were sentenced. More than half had drug abuse problems and 23 percent had been treated for mental health problems.
The report found that adult prison is ill-equipped to provide either education or mental health services for these young offenders. Earlier research found that juveniles received about eight hours of education a week in adult prison, and that the system “is neither designed nor equipped to provide adequate mental health services for youth.”
The result: many juveniles left as an adult perhaps a few years later, with no job skills, a felony record and dismal options for employment.
Indeed, a 2003 task force at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that youth transferred to the adult justice system were 34 percent more likely to be rearrested for a violent crime than youth retained in the juvenile justice system.
Juvenile advocates in Michigan are pushing for laws to raise the age for adult prosecution to 18. That would have considerable impact, since 17-year-olds comprise about 95 percent of the juveniles in Michigan's adult criminal justice system.
State Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the proposal is one of many prison reforms he would like to see. Haveman is also working to revive a state sentencing commission to review guidelines for prison sentences.
Haveman said he is “completely supportive” of raising the age for adult sentencing to 18. That would change a standard in place in Michigan since 1907 that 17-year-olds who commit crimes would be treated as adults.
“In every other way an 18-year-old is what we use to define as an adult. A 17-year-old can't buy alcohol and can't vote. So why not give these kids a chance and look for alternatives to get them out of their problems instead of treating them like criminals?”
Former MDOC Director Patricia Caruso concurs.
“It's not really a political question,” said Caruso, who directed the department from 2003 to 2011 “If your focus is on public safety and community safety, you have to look at what works. Incarcerating teenagers in the adult system is not making us safer.”
Caruso said she is “no bleeding heart” and believes that juveniles who commit violent crime at 17 must be locked up in secure facilities.
But she recalled receiving a letter in the 1990s from a prisoner while she was a warden at Chippewa Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula. The prisoner said he was concerned about safety and other issues.
“'Help me, I'm only 16,'” Caruso recalled reading.
She looked up his file and found that he had been incarcerated for a minor theft. She saw no background of violence.
“I'm sitting in my office saying, 'What the hell is going on here?'” Caruso said.
The report recommends reforms that include:
- Keeping young offenders in juvenile court until age 18.
- Removing youth from adult jails and prisons.
- Requiring judicial review of cases involving offenders younger than 17 that are transferred to the adult system.
- Requiring oversight and public reporting on juveniles in the adult system.
- Offering community-based rehabilitative alternatives.
- Banning solitary confinement for juveniles.
The report noted that juveniles in the adult system continue to be subjected to solitary confinement, a practice banned in the Mississippi and New York prison systems and being phased out in Ohio.
Staley of MCCD sees these issues as a legacy of long-standing “tough on crime” measures of the 1980s and 1990s, some of it aimed at juvenile offenders. Under state law adopted in 1996, juveniles under the age of 17 can be waived into the adult system. There were nearly 1,200 juveniles younger than 17 in the adult system in the past decade.
MDOC spokesman Russell Marlin noted that treating 17-year-olds as adults was “a decision that didn’t involve our agency. Courts across Michigan sentence offenders to prison and it is our job to carry out those sentences.”
Marlin said he would disagree that juvenile offenders are subjected to greater abuse in the adult system.
Marlin also took issue with assertions that juvenile offenders in the adult system are more likely to return to prison. Though the state does not track recidivism among juveniles prosecuted as adults, Marlin noted that a decade ago, 44 percent of all inmates released returned to prison within three years. Marlin said that rate has been reduced to 29 percent today.
Joy Yearout, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, said it would be “premature” to comment on the report and its recommendations without reviewing it.
She noted that prosecutors in Michigan have discretion to decide whether teens should be charged as adults and that “in cases of murder, rape and violent crime, it may be appropriate to charge teenagers as adults.”
Schuette maintains the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling applies only to teenagers sentenced after 2012. He has sought to block parole hearings for the hundreds of juvenile lifers already housed in Michigan’s prisons.
Recent juvenile changes
In 2013, Michigan prison officials complied with a federal directive that prisoners under 18 were to be separated by “sight and sound” from adult inmates. Most are now in a segregated unit at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer County. But they can be transferred at 18 to other prisons within the system and mixed with the general population. Female juveniles are sent to Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Washtenaw County.
Frank Vandervort, a University of Michigan Law School professor and co-founder of the Ann Arbor-based Juvenile Justice Law Clinic, notes that brain research confirms important differences between juveniles and adults. That includes findings that juveniles are more impulsive, aggressive and susceptible to peer pressure. Vandervort believes that must be taken into account in assessing sentences of not only juvenile lifers - but the entire the juvenile prison population.
“It's really time we integrate brain research into our criminal justice policy making,” Vandervort said.
Reform advocates say the adult criminal justice system is particularly unfit for juveniles with mental-health issues.
In 2005, according to a Detroit Free Press account, Kevin DeMott was just 13 when he used a toy gun to hold up a Little Caesars pizza store in Battle Creek to pay off a marijuana debt.
He fled before collecting any money from an employee and three customers. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 11, he was given a “blended” sentence that included time in both the juvenile and adult system. At 15, he was sentenced to prison for up to five years on four counts of attempted armed robbery.
“We were told he would receive the mental-health services he needed,” said his mother, Lois DeMott, who later co-founded the Lansing-based Citizens for Prison Reform in 2011.
But in 2010 and 2011, according to the newspaper account, DeMott spent four months in an isolation cell at Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility. Officers found him in January 2011 banging his head against a blood-stained wall. After he resisted, he was hit with pepper spray and manacled in belly chains and leg irons, according to the account.
He was released in November 2013.
“I certainly believe we have a lot of room for improvement,” Lois DeMott said. “I am still seeing that the system seems to be primarily focused on punishment.”
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