Report Criticizes State Law
A recent report on juveniles in prison criticizes the state of Michigan for “funneling children into Michigan’s adult prison system due to a series of harsh ‘tough on crime’ laws…”
From 2003 through 2013, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency studied incarcerated youth who had been tried as adults; gathering data on the histories, laws and policies that were relevant to their cases. The findings were published in Youth Behind Bars: Exploring the Impact of Prosecuting and Incarcerating Kids in Michigan’s Criminal Justice System. There is a link to the report at the end of this article.
Michigan is one of only ten states in the US where 17-year-olds are automatically prosecuted as adults for crimes. But according to Michelle Weemhoff, the council’s associate director and co-author of the 18-page report, Michigan’s juvenile justice laws are outdated and do very little to rehabilitate criminal youth or even protect the public.
This “outdated approach” actually threatens the safety of youth, says Weemhoff and, aside from being costly and inefficient, it increases violent crime. All of this information addresses two major concerns that the state is currently dealing with: how much money the state spends on corrections, and whether the current ‘get-tough’ approach to juvenile crime is working in the long term.
Weemhoff also says that prosecuting teens as adults costs the state more in the long term. According to the report’s findings, Michigan spends about $34,300 per inmate, per year in overall costs. There are also additional costs that continue after individuals are released.
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that non-parole juvenile life sentences are a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, Governor Rick Snyder signed a new law in March 2014 that allows more leniency for future juveniles facing prison charges.
Under the new law a prosecutor could still seek a life sentence without parole for a juvenile who committed murder or other serious felonies, but the presiding judge is required to hold a hearing and consider any evidence of mitigating circumstances. In addition, a judge now has the option of a 25 to 60 year sentence instead of a life sentence for these offenders.
However, the ruling made by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 did not address whether or not the changes apply retroactively. Michigan’s new law makes no provision either for the current inmates serving life sentences who were convicted as juveniles.
In addition to calling for reform of the juvenile system, the report also claims that the state needs to:
- Raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18;
- Remove youth from adult jails and prisons;
- End the option of sentencing 17-year-olds to life without the possibility of parole;
- Develop policies to “reduce the overrepresentation of youth of color in the adult system.”;
- Offer rehabilitative alternatives to youths convicted of crime;
- Restrict segregation of youthful prisoners.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, only the state of Pennsylvania has more “juvenile lifers” than Michigan. Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney for the Union says that “Michigan remains in the minority of states that haven’t made progress on youth incarceration reform. The changes suggested by the report are long overdue.”