LANSING - In response to growing concern over the treatment of youth in Michigan’s adult prison system, a bipartisan group of state legislators working alongside the ACLU of Michigan, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, Michigan United and other justice advocacy organizations today announced a package of bills to reduce the number of young people exposed to adult prisons. 

“It’s not only inappropriate to place underage offenders in prisons with adult criminals, but it’s tantamount to torture,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “We are making children who are already at risk even more vulnerable by exposing them to the very real threat of physical assaults, rape and even murder. Not only is this practice a waste of critical tax dollars, but it leaves Michigan morally bankrupt as well.”

The legislation, led by 14 bipartisan Michigan State House Representatives and State Senators, would permit 17-year-olds to be processed in the juvenile courts and prohibit youth under 18 from being sent to adult jails and prisons. Additional bills would eliminate certain offenses that automatically trigger adult prosecution, such as running away from a juvenile facility.

The group of legislators who announced the bills includes Representatives Harvey Santana (D-Detroit), Peter Lucido (R- Shelby), Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth), Klint Kesto (R- Commerce), and Robert Kosowski (D-Westland). 

Over the past ten years, more than 20,000 young people under 18 have been convicted as adults in Michigan, mostly for non-violent offenses with no prior juvenile record.

“Michigan is one of only 9 states that still automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system,” said Rep. Santana. “Numerous studies have shown that a young person’s brain is not fully developed until their mid-20’s. We are throwing children in with hardened criminals and they are not getting the rehabilitation services they so desperately need. Instead of providing youth with the education and training necessary to become productive members of society, we are simply putting them in prison and throwing away the key.”

The state is currently facing a class action lawsuit alleging sexual and physical victimization of youth in Michigan prisons.

“Seventy-percent of all 17-year-olds in Michigan’s criminal justice system come from only ten counties,” said Kristen Staley, Associate Director for the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. “Of those ten, all have strong juvenile justice services like diversion, community-based programs and mentoring that are better equipped to provide the age-appropriate rehabilitation we know yields better outcomes for our youth and our communities. But, until we raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, these children will never have access to these great services.”

These proposed changes are the product of a legislative workgroup led by Rep. Santana and follow recommendations from a recent report by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, “Youth Behind Bars: Exploring the Impact of Prosecuting and Incarcerating Kids in Michigan’s Criminal Justice System.” The report documents how Michigan’s outdated approach to justice does little to rehabilitate children, protect public safety, or wisely invest taxpayer dollars.

The proposed changes also come at the same time that Governor Rick Snyder is pushing to improve and modernize Michigan’s criminal justice system. Part of the legislative package would create a financial incentive for counties to use community-based programs over expensive residential facilities and require outcome tracking of youth in the adult system to ensure appropriate treatment.

“The majority of other states have already reversed “get tough” policies because they simply don’t work,” said Rep. Heise. “So far, in 2015, there have been 35 pieces of legislation passed in 19 different states that are making justice systems more effective and efficient. The time has come for Michigan to join the rest of the country in adopting smart on crime policies that will save taxpayer dollars and be better for our youth.”

Among the key reforms included in the package of juvenile justice proposals:

  • Increase the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years old
  • Increase the County Child Care Fund reimbursement rate for qualifying community-based services for youth by 25 percent
  • Prohibit the placement of youth under 18 in adult jails and prisons and provide access to age-appropriate rehabilitation
  • Omit certain offenses that do not require adult sentencing from the list of Specified Juvenile Offenses
  • Require equal consideration of all mitigating factors prior to waiving jurisdiction in traditional juvenile waiver cases
  • Require public monitoring and oversight of youth under the jurisdiction of the MDOC who entered for an offense committed prior to turning 18 years old
  • Ensure age-appropriate programming and outdoor exercise for youth under 21-years-old in administrative segregation in prison
  • Establish a family advisory board within the MDOC to ensure effective partnerships with families and victims

“These bills still allow kids to be transferred to the adult system on a case-by-case basis. That won’t change,” said Rep. Lucido. “But, for most kids, the juvenile courts are better equipped to hold youth accountable while keeping them connected to their family and school.”