Three things we learned from Youth Behind Bars Meetings
We spent the last four months traveling around the state of Michigan, speaking to communities about youth that end up in our state’s adult prison system. We engaged hundreds of people from Grand Rapids, Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Battle Creek and Holland. We heard stories from family members of those in the criminal justice system, the formerly incarcerated, and community advocates and concerned citizens. And here is what we learned:
1) There is widespread support to raise the age to 18
The overwhelming majority of the Michiganders we met were shocked to find that our state is 1 out of only 9 states that automatically considers 17-year-olds adults in the courtroom. Thus, it wasn’t a surprise to find out that most were enthusiastically in favor of raising the juvenile court age to end at age 18. We heard the same message over and over: raising the age is a great opportunity to divert thousands of kids from entering the adult justice system. By treating kids as kids and providing developmentally and age-appropriate services, it can prevent future crimes and keep our communities safe.
2) Community programming for youth is crucial, but is greatly underfunded
One of the most pressing issues we heard was a lack of support for community-based programs for youth at-risk of entering the adult system. Attendees spoke about the positive outcomes experienced by youth and their families who participated in these local programs. But the inspiring stories were often overshadowed by the lack of funding available to keep these successful programs afloat. Due to few resources, community organizations across the state are limited in their ability to counter risk factors that lead to youth offending, including providing therapeutic treatment, strength-based services, and support for families—all of which are proven to be effective at reducing reoffending.
There is a clear need for more funding of community-based services in all Michigan counties. Creative funding strategies like the Department of Human Services’ In-Home Community Care Grant and others are a good start, but it is simply not enough. Organizations that provide mentoring, mental health treatment, education, job training, and other age-appropriate services are the backbone of Michigan’s juvenile and criminal justice systems, and they should be supported for the great work they provide our communities.
3) Raising the age is only the first step
In the last decade over 20,000 youth under 18 entered Michigan’s adult justice system. Ninety-five percent of those youth were there simply for being 17. Raising the age of juvenile court to 18 could prevent thousands from ending up in the adult prison system and provide much needed support for the next generation of Michigan youth.
But raising the age is only the first step in a series of reforms needed to keep our communities safe and our young people out of the corrections system. Policies that reduce incarceration and emphasize community services are essential to increasing public safety, decreasing corrections costs, and vital to the positive development of all Michigan youth.
Do you know a young person caught up in the adult criminal justice system? Help us take the next step by sending us your story.
We’ve done our homework. We know the numbers, the statistics and the laws. But what’s missing are real Michiganders with real experiences. Were you a young person transferred into adult court? Were you 17 and convicted for a criminal offense? Was your loved one caught in the adult system at a young age? Was he or she 17 at the time of the offense?
Help us share the message of Michigan’s Youth Behind Bars. Contact us and let your voice be heard.