Council releases report to advocate for young people still behind bars

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Reactions to the incarceration of teenagers in the adult prison system can be visceral, ranging all the way from tearful compassion to emotional satisfaction with tough justice meted out.

The Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD) has released a report that the advocates who work there believe might change the minds of those in the latter category by dispelling some commonly held misconceptions.

The MCCD intends to roll this report out to the public through events that record audience member’s experiences and ideas on addressing what they see as a big problem: there were 20,291 youth convicted as adults from 2003-2013, and 6764 of them are still either serving time or on  probation.

On June 25, Thomas M. Cooley Law School Grand Rapids Campus hosted the first of these public information events in the state. 

At the well-attended session, the authors of Youth Behind Bars summarized some of the more surprising findings from the report. For example, despite the widespread public opinion that only juveniles who have committed the most heinous of crimes are tried as adults, the report says that nearly 60% of the offenses treated that way were non-violent. In addition, 58% of the youth had no previous juvenile record.

Another startling statistic in the report, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that the recidivism rate is 34% higher for youth coming out of the adult versus juvenile justice system — and that the crimes are more likely to be violent.

MCCD staffers Michelle Weemhoff, MSW, and Kirsten Staley, JD, wrote the report. Before they took the floor, Cooley Professor Heather Garretson introduced the organization’s Executive Director Dennis Schrantz, a well-known advocate who was instrumental in, for example, creating the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative.

Schrantz stated, “We need to work toward ending mass incarceration by looking at these different populations like youth, and keeping them from going there in the first place,” which drew applause. He continued, “It’s unconscionable. We should be telling everyone in the system: this is brutal, this is unacceptable, this is in-

humane.”

Weemhoff and Staley clearly also felt strongly about their subject matter. Weemhoff, who is chair of both the Michigan Juvenile Justice Collabo-

rative and the Michigan Coalition for Children and Families and received both her B.A. and MSW degrees from University of Michigan, prefaced the report by saying, “MCCD has also really been digging into the many effective juvenile justice programs that have reduced the number of youth going into the adult system — which is far cheaper than sending them to prison.”

Staley, formerly a family law attorney near Louisville, Ky., received her bachelor’s degree from American University and her Juris Doctor from the University of Louisville. She is also a seasoned facilitator of youth restorative justice processes.

Weemhoff gave a historical perspective, referring to the period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when  fears about teen threats and perceived curbing of victims’ rights, among other factors, caused Michigan to adopt “tough-on-crime” policies.

One result of this was removing 17-year-olds from the juvenile justice system and placing them in the adult system. This is out of step with nearly all other states; only ten others still have that policy, Staley said. She added, “Kids really just aren’t adults. Teens are more inclined to act impulsively and succumb to peer pressure, but research shows they are also much more amenable to rehabilitation.”

Weemhoff noted a shift in public opinion: 91% of Michiganians surveyed currently believe that “rehabilitative services and treatment can help prevent future crime.”

Key recommendations in the report include raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18; removing all youth from adult prisons and jails and offering them juvenile rehabilitative services; increasing monitoring and public reporting about juveniles tried as adults; mandating that judges review all youth cases where adult treatment is recommended and allowing judges to consider mitigating circumstances; addressing racial disparities; training court-appointed attorneys in youth issues; eliminating solitary confinement; prohibiting life without parole and other lengthy sentences; and establishing programs to involve the youth’s families.

The authors said the data will continue to be refined to yield information on additional statistical categories.

After their presentation, Lois DeMott spoke about receiving a Soros Fellowship, to work on  increasing prisoner family’s participation. A pilot will take place at three prisons, including Muskegon’s Brooks Correctional Facility.

DeMott’s son Kevin was incarcerated after years battling bipolar disease, leading him to commit crimes. She started Citizens for Prison Reform (CPR) after her son asked her to help advocate for incarcerated youth with mental illness; many CPR?members attended the Grand Rapids event.

Many people who attended had touching personal stories and excellent ideas on ways to reform the system, speaking from experiences they had struggled to overcome.

The staff of MCCD, on whose board  Immediate Past Grand Rapids Bar President Kristin Vanden Berg served until recently, said they would compile the public input and ideas, and use it to advocate for decision-makers to change the laws.