Children have no business in adult criminal justice system

Every state allows juveniles to be tried as adults for some criminal offenses, this in spite research that suggests that it does little to deter crime or reduce recidivism. Michigan goes a step further and prosecutes all offenders 17 and older as adults. It’s a counterproductive practice that cannot end soon enough.

A new report by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency is but the latest in a long series of studies that illustrate the tough-on-juvenile-crime policies so popular 20 years ago are at best both expensive and ineffective.

Released on June 9, the “Youth Behind Bars” report examines 10 years of incarceration data involving youth. The report found that 60 percent of the 17-year-olds charged as adults in Michigan were tried for nonviolent offenses and that 58 percent of those entering the criminal justice system had no prior juvenile record.

This follows similar trends in the juvenile system, where about three-quarters of incarcerated youth in Michigan committed nonviolent crimes that post no threat to public safety.

The nonviolent status of their crimes, and the lack of a prior criminal record, should matter, because it suggests lost opportunities to reintegrate young offenders as productive and contributing members of their communities, literally throwing away young lives while further burdening the criminal justice system and society.

We’ve long argued that jailing nonviolent, juvenile offenders – be it in adult or juvenile facilities – simply makes no sense for either the individual or society.

National research has shown for years that youth incarceration actually increases violent crime. The report cites data that reveals that youth exiting the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and will reoffend sooner. Typically, their crimes escalate in severity.

The reasons for that are clear enough. Most 17-year-olds entering the criminal justice system carry with them a lifetime of trauma and severe behavioral health needs that corrections facilities are simply ill-equipped to meet.

Among the facts in Monday’s report:

– Prior to entering prison, 78 percent had a friend who was killed; 48 percent had a family member that was killed.

– 81 percent had a parent with substance abuse issues.

– 44 percent spent time in foster care and were placed out of home an average of 11 times.

– 45 percent had a father in prison; 25 percent had a mother in prison; 19 percent had a sibling in prison.

Piling trauma upon trauma is not an effective strategy to rehabilitate troubled youth, and incarceration almost always does more harm than good. Set aside the psychological scars, the implications for the individuals and their home communities are long-lasting.

Noted in Monday’s report is that nearly half of the 17-year-olds convicted as adults lack a high school education, and their convictions impose significant barriers to educational and employment opportunities. In effect, those convictions represent life sentences for which we all pay.

The state Department of Corrections faults some of the report’s findings, noting that teenage inmates – there are currently 77 serving time – are already separated from the general population.

We believe, however, that the report underscores one component of a broader policy issue about how we respond to juvenile crime. Getting tough may sound good, but it’s getting us nowhere.

We’re all better served when juvenile justice leans heavily toward compassion. Putting juveniles into an adult correction system is the furthest thing from compassion, and Michigan should end the practice.