It’s More Than Time to Raise the Age in Michigan

In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.

That’s because Michigan is one of only five states that automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for any offense. In the past decade, more than 20,000 youth under age 18 have been charged as adults in Michigan.  

The majority of these 17-year-olds were charged with nonviolent offenses, and most had no previous involvement in the juvenile justice system. But in Michigan, a first-time mistake can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.

Despite the inherent dangers of placing a child in prison, more than half the 17-year-olds convicted as adults were confined in adult facilities. Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization and physical violence, and more likely to commit suicide. Even exposure and proximity to violence can severely disrupt the course of healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development in teens.

It is not surprising, then, that youth convicted as adults have worse physical and mental health outcomes over their lifetimes than those who enter the juvenile justice system. Their problems are compounded by the fact that youth with criminal records have a harder time accessing housing, furthering their education and securing long-term employment.

Youth with adult convictions are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more violently, than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. If the goal of our justice system truly is public safety, then directing these young people to rehabilitative youth services is a far better choice.

So, why are 17-year-olds considered adults in the first place? Because that’s how our system was created in 1908 — the year the first Ford Model T automobile was introduced. A century later, Michigan desperately needs a new model for adjudicating youth.

Michigan’s juvenile justice system isn’t perfect but it does strive to continuously make itself better. Over the past decade, some juvenile courts have begun embracing evidence-based practices that are proven to reduce crime and improve outcomes for children and their families.

During the same time span that tens of thousands of 17-year-olds were systematically funneled into the adult criminal justice system, Michigan’s innovative juvenile justice system managed to cut detention and out-of-home placement rates by 40 percent. We have seen the emergence of high-quality diversion and community-based programs that allow kids to stay in school and receive treatment for their entire families. Unfortunately, 17-year-olds who commit crimes are prohibited from accessing these services; their options are adult probation, jail or prison.

Michigan’s juvenile system already serves 17-year-olds who entered their jurisdiction prior to their 17th birthday. In fact, the juvenile court can maintain jurisdiction until one’s 19th or 21st birthday, depending on the offense. Probation and facility staff are already trained to work with this age group and offer successful programming designed to meet their developmental and behavioral health needs.

This is important because we know that adolescence is a period of significant developmental growth, characterized by impulsivity, risk-taking and strong influence by peers. As part of normal human development, young people experience rapid physiological and psychological changes that do not fully mature until well beyond age 18.

These changes establish the architecture that will eventually allow young adults to temper risk-taking behaviors, evaluate costs and benefits and fully grasp the consequences of their actions. As such, youth are far more amenable to rehabilitative programs and behavior modification during these formative years. Conversely, harsh treatment during adolescence can further solidify a child’s trajectory down the wrong path.

Experts estimate that 90 percent of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event. In Michigan, the vast majority of youth convicted as adults have had a friend or family member killed, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home, multiple foster home placements or parental incarceration. Rather than retraumatizing youth by sentencing them to prison, we should support them with juvenile justice services that build their coping and resilience skills and teach them accountability.

In the past 10 years, numerous other states have raised the age of jurisdiction, citing improved public safety, greater access to children’s services and better outcomes for youth and their families. The other four states that prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia and Texas — are also considering legislative changes to raise the age.

The proposed legislation in Michigan would continue to allow for the “waiver” of a 17-year-old into the adult system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Those youth would be housed in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, and then sent to an adult prison.

Why hasn’t Michigan raised the age yet? The short answer: money and a lack of political will. During legislative hearings in 2016, every single stakeholder group — from prosecutors to judges to facility staff — clearly stated that raising the age was the “right thing to do.” The big question was, “How do we pay for it?”

Other states have managed to pay to raise the age and, as it turns out, at a much lower cost than initially anticipated. In Illinois, the overall cost of the system actually went down after raising the age.

It is true that Michigan’s funding system poses unique challenges. The state pays the full cost for inmates in the adult criminal justice system, while counties pay costs in the juvenile justice system with the state reimbursing half of eligible expenses. Counties rightly fear they may get saddled with massive costs if 17-year-olds automatically come into their systems, and that serving additional youth will impact the quality of their existing services.

There are data limitations as well. But none of this excuses legislators and other policymakers from finding solutions that nearly every other state has come up with — solutions that will enhance public safety, protect existing services and help more troubled youth turn their lives around. We have the brainpower to figure out the funding. Now we just need the willpower.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves one important question: Have I done everything I can today to prevent a child from being harmed? With each passing day, young people are forced into an adult justice system that does not address their needs and, in fact, exposes them to significant physical harm and psychological trauma. For their well-being, for the safety and protection of our communities, it’s time to raise the age in Michigan.

Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.

Mary King is executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She previously served as community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, where she engaged key stakeholders in a unified effort to provide evidence-based services for returning citizens.

Queer Youth Must Get Sexual Health Care While Incarcerated

As “bathroom bills,” military transgender bans and elimination of protections for LGBTQ federal employees demonstrate, we are a long way from a society in which coming out is a realistic option for all. The truth of this likely hits youth the hardest, who still risk family rejection, bullying, even homelessness for coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

The least we can do is demand that LGBTQ youth’s needs are concretely recognized in the agencies and systems created to serve young people. Does your local school district include LGBTQ-supportive sexual health literacy? If not, press your local schools to get sexual health literacy out of the closet and into a regular curriculum. By doing this, you not only increase understanding among all youth about a vital aspect of being human, but you will increase health and decrease bullying of LGBTQ youth.

It is intolerable that such programs largely don’t exist in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems where queer youth are represented at more than twice the rate of their numbers nationwide, and where they rely on system officials for their most basic needs, including sexual health care. How do young people in these facilities thrive when their very existence is denied or treated as aberrant?

October is national Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM). If awareness leads to action, we will see increased advocacy to decrease the number of young people caught up in the so-called justice system. In recognition of the reality that that number is sadly substantial, the Center for HIV Law and Policy’s focus for YJAM is on policy changes that would make future National Coming Out Days (Oct. 11) a safe option for all the young people in detention facilities across the country.

Access to scientifically sound sexual health care would be a very good start. What’s more, it’s part of the essential care detention facilities are obligated to provide to young people in custody. When youth detention facilities fail to provide a basic part of essential health care, we should hold them accountable.

Comprehensive, LGBTQ-affirming sexual health care includes sexually transmitted infection diagnosis, treatment and prevention, including access to condoms and other forms of birth control, pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, and sexual health literacy programming that promotes understanding of the full spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. It includes guided instruction on healthy sexual attitudes, relationships and behaviors. It includes addressing mental health substance abuse. And it includes services that address the violence based on discriminatory views and stereotypes of various sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.

Professional standards and expert consensus support provision of these health services for all youth. In view of the ballooning rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly among young people, sexual health care is also smart public health policy.

To learn more about what you can do to uphold the sexual health rights of youth in detention, check out Teen SENSE, a project of The Center for HIV Law and Policy.

Pepis Rodriguez is a staff attorney for The Center for HIV Law and Policy.

Navigating the Path to a Successful Career: Providing Support for Trauma-Exposed Youth i

Juvenile Law Center

Youth placed in juvenile justice institutions face a fundamental obstacle in their career pathway: They have been removed from their communities and lack access to the full array of educational and job opportunities available to their peers. Accordingly, the best long-term solution to the many barriers to career success “disconnected” youth face is to keep them out of the juvenile justice system entirely — and, in particular, out of juvenile detention and correctional institutions.

Indeed, although the goal underlying the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation — meaning that when youth leave the system they will be better off than when they entered, ready to gain employment and be contributing members to society — most juvenile facilities do little to prepare youth for adulthood and fail to properly treat the issues contributing to problematic behaviors.

In particular, many facilities are ill-equipped to provide appropriate treatment for the roughly 75 percent of youth in their care who were previously victims of violent trauma. Without treatment, this trauma can manifest as behavioral health conditions, mental illness and substance abuse, all of which are present at rates two to three times more for children in the juvenile justice system. Moreover, the poor conditions in juvenile facilities can often exacerbate these conditions, leading to further mental health problems. These issues are not new, but any proper response requires a thoughtful systemwide effort.

That’s exactly what Bob Listenbee plans to achieve. Previously serving as chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia for 16 years, Listenbee was later appointed by President Barack Obama as administrator of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Now, back in Philadelphia as a fellow with the Stoneleigh Foundation, Listenbee hopes to build bridges between the various justice system players to create a comprehensive support system for youth. He recently shared some of his innovative ideas with us.

Under Listenbee’s leadership, OJJDP issued a report finding that trauma will continue to manifest and disrupt a youth’s educational and emotional development until properly addressed. The report emphasized the implementation of “trauma-informed care,” a systemwide approach that recognizes the unique needs of youth who have experienced trauma during childhood. To effectively address trauma, ensuring it does not contribute to later involvement in the justice system, immediate intervention is necessary. Programs that provide counseling and support to young people experiencing domestic violence or gang violence at the moment of the impact have been proven effective.

Too often, trauma left untreated can manifest into involvement in the justice system. Rather than criminalizing the behaviors and incarcerating young people, further exacerbating the trauma they experience, effective programs divert young people out of the justice system and into treatment programs. When youth require more supervision than just treatment, we must make sure systems provide adequate treatment programs that are individualized to meet the youth’s needs.

In contrast, if trauma is left unaddressed, youth are unlikely to fully benefit from other rehabilitation programs such as job training and internships. Because of this, trauma-informed care must be included alongside other career programming so that youth can begin properly preparing gainful employment upon release. If trauma-informed care and job training are implemented successfully, our juvenile justice system can become a real instrument for positive change and rehabilitation.

Listenbee has repeatedly emphasized that just having the answers isn’t enough. The real challenge is implementing these changes across the country so we can start healing our youth as fast as possible. Addressing the root causes of incarceration will give “disconnected” youth the best chance to reach their potential and achieve their career goals.

At Juvenile Law Center, we agree that this approach will best serve not only young people but also their greater communities. We recommend it as a practice for all who are seriously interested in tackling issues of youth employment with system-involved kids.

Patrick Took is a legal intern at the Juvenile Law Center.

This is one in a series of blog posts from the Juvenile Law Center on career pathways and barriers for system-involved youth. It has been slightly edited and is reposted with permission. See the original and full series here.

Juvenile Drug Courts Agree More Family Involvement Needed; Some Not Sure How to Do It: Report

WASHINGTON — Juvenile drug treatment courts must do more to bring families into the treatment process if they want to help young offenders overcome addiction and stay out of the criminal justice system, a team of mental health professionals concluded in a sweeping report released today.

Using a survey of 158 drug courts in 38 states as a backdrop, the report highlights the need to improve the current approach to treatment and presents a set of tools to help courts incorporate family-involved treatment plans. Juvenile drug treatment courts have been less successful than traditional juvenile courts in stopping recidivism or drug use among youths charged with crimes, and even trails adult drug courts in success rates, according to research cited in the report.

The survey results and recommendations released today by Policy Research Associates and the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice are designed specifically to address that lack of success, the report’s authors said this week. Court workers taking the survey overwhelmingly agreed that more family participation is crucial to keeping teens from relapsing and identified several obstacles that prevent families from becoming more involved.  

For example, survey respondents said family-centered treatment programs would benefit by providing transportation or child care so family members can be more involved in the young person’s treatment.  They even pointed to the benefits of providing small incentives, such as movie tickets, to encourage more family participation.

Despite the clear need for family engagement, the survey found that more than one-third of court workers had little to no understanding of the best strategies for doing so.

Brett Harris

“One of the most important things we are trying to do is to provide information and the tools to courts, to help them increase their efforts,” said study co-author Brett Harris, a clinical assistant professor in public health at the State University of New York at Albany. “The very low level of familiarity with engagement techniques probably surprised us the most. They thought it was important to successful outcomes, and you see that in the survey results. But they didn’t know the best ways to do that.”

In 2015, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention examined nine juvenile drug courts from three regions. Authors of that study found seven of the nine programs saw “higher rates of new referrals for drug court youth when compared with youth on traditional probation.” Additionally, six of the nine regions saw higher recidivism rates in the drug courts.

The study did not fault the concept of juvenile drug courts, but instead found the courts were poorly run.

[Related: Substance Use, Mental Health & the Road to Recovery: ‘Like Juggling Explosives Blindfolded’]

”Many of the juvenile drug courts were not adequately assessing their clients for risk, needs, and barriers to treatment success. Juvenile drug courts in general were not adhering to evidence-based practices,” the 2015 OJJDP study concluded. Of the nine drug courts examined, only one showed significant reductions in recidivism rates.

Karli Keator

For this latest study, Harris, Karli Keator and Nicole Vincent-Roller from Policy Research Associates, and consultant Brooke Keefer viewed the report not as an indictment of the entire juvenile drug court program, but as an opportunity to fix what’s wrong. Based on their experiences in the field, they believed engaging family in the treatment was the best chance of keeping teens off drugs and preventing them from committing new crimes. But they wanted to find out if others working in the field felt the same way.  

So they put together a survey looking at everything from the number of full-time and part-time staff, the average age of those in juvenile drug court and many other factors. Harris said she and her colleagues were somewhat surprised by the number of courts and states responding, saying it showed that courts are seeking help in addressing substance use disorder among youth.

The survey found nearly 80 percent of youth in drug court had not committed any felony other than the underlying drug charge. These courts deal with youth age 13 up to nearly 18.

“The literature has shown a lot of success in adult drug court, but with youth — a population that would benefit greatly and has so much of their lives ahead of them — the results have not been as good,” Harris said.

Among the recommendations and resources offered to juvenile drug courts in the report:

  • A detailed self-assessment tool: “This exercise can help gauge where your program’s family engagement work stands, indicate areas for improvement, and validate existing efforts.”
  • Early engagement with the juvenile offenders and their families.
  • Regular feedback from the youth and their families.
  • Better training of staff and of the family and other adults who are influential in the teen’s life and can be brought into the engagement process.

The next step will be helping local drug courts enact some of the report’s recommendations, and to continue raising awareness of the need for family engagement in treatment plans, Harris said.

“The best efforts are always multipronged, and while enhancing family engagement should help improve outcomes, there is still a lot of work to be done to implement the recommendations,” Harris said. “And, of course, we will need to follow up and evaluate, to see what other prongs can be added based on what we see and hear in the field.”

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Youth Need Substance Abuse Help in Communities, Experts Say

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Naloxone and the Cop

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Naloxone in Georgia

Naloxone, a medicine used to stop the effects of an opioid overdose, can be easily applied via a squirt through the nose or a shot in the arm. Because of the Georgia 911 Medical Amnesty Law, both civilians and first-responding law enforcement can administer Naloxone themselves or seek help without fear of punishment in a situation where seconds can count.

“[Officers] stood there and actually had to watch this person go into cardiac arrest and respiratory arrest, starting CPR because they didn't have the means or the tools to do anything," said officer Shane Bonebrake of the Woodstock Police Department in Georgia. "Now we've got this tool, and they can actually see the [benefit]. It's amazing.”

Naloxone, or Narcan, has saved more than 400 lives in Georgia since the bill's passage in the spring of 2014, according to Georgia Overdose Prevention.

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Youth Need Substance Abuse Help in Communities, Experts Say

Evan Elkin

BALTIMORE — Adolescents with substance abuse problems too often cannot access treatment unless they land in the juvenile justice system, experts say.

The juvenile justice system has developed some effective interventions for adolescents dealing with substance abuse, but they would be better served accessing treatment outside the system, said Evan Elkin, national executive director of Reclaiming Futures.

“We have to move these evidence-based treatments and approaches out of the justice system and back into the community,” he said Wednesday at a panel discussion hosted by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

Relying on the justice system to treat substance abuse also means treatment is rooted in racial divisions, Elkin said. Youth of color are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system.

“We operate two public health systems in America. One is for people of color and one is for the white population. Public health is mediated through the justice system,” he said.

[Related: Obama Affirms at Drug Summit That Addiction Is Disease, Not Moral Failure]

Hoover Adger, director of the Substance Abuse Assessment/Intervention Team at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Adolescent Program, said he sees a greater awareness of the science behind addiction, for adolescents and adults.

Hoover Adger,
Hoover Adger

But youth do not often have a voice in the political conversations that dictate whether treatment is offered or whether it’s accessible. Communities have to work on behalf of young people, he said.

“We need you to hang in there and speak loudly,” he said.

What works

Treatment programs should not take a punitive approach, Elkin said. Teenagers shouldn’t wear a label of addiction but instead be able to consider their strengths and what they want for themselves, he said.

“The idea is to plant a seed to trust them as decision makers,” he said.

Treatment also cannot end too soon, Adger said. No doctor would offer a diabetes patient insulin for only a few weeks, then call the patient a failure when they got sick again.

The science shows addiction treatment can work as well as medical interventions for other chronic conditions, but protocols don’t always reflect that, he said.

“There tends to be a disconnect between the science and what we actually do,” he said.

Treatment also should consider the role of a whole family, not just the person dealing with addiction, said Carin Callan Miller, founder of Save Our Children Peer Family Support Group.

“When families come together and they find a safe place to share without shame, they can learn and heal,” she said.

Elkin said after the panel that he does see a shift toward community-based treatment options, such as use of the Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment model to identify and refer substance abuse problems. As more programs are built up, communities will be in better position to help youth.

“If you have options, it changes your ability to make decisions,” he said.

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Obama Affirms at Drug Summit That Addiction Is Disease, Not Moral Failure

Watch: Justin Luke Riley's candid approach to recovery from opioid and other addictions.

ATLANTA — President Obama addressed the country’s growing opioid addiction epidemic at a panel discussion in Atlanta Tuesday, stressing to the 2,000-plus listeners that addiction is an illness and not a moral shortcoming.

He also emphasized that more people are dying each year from opioid overdose than from car crashes.

The panel, moderated by CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, featured a young man who shared his story of becoming addicted to opioids as a youth, according to attendees.

The president’s participation in the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit elevates awareness and discussion of the national problem.

“It’s really important to have a president talk about addiction as a disease rather than as a moral failure,” said Rebecca Salay of Washington, District of Columbia, who was at the panel discussion. “There’s no one more important to influence the conversation.”

Two weeks ago, that agency recommended that doctors first try aspirin or ibuprofen to treat pain. While nonbinding, that recommendation is likely to be followed, many experts said at the time, because of the weight of the CDC.

The CDC has identified several groups who are most at risk for heroin addiction, and one of those groups is young people 18 to 25.

The percentage increase of heroin users in that age group from 2002-04 and 2011-13 is higher than for any other age group — 109 percent.

In addition, deaths from opioid overdose in that age group has skyrocketed.

In the face of such startling numbers, medical professionals and those who work with young people are seeking solutions.

Sam Zamirripa, an attendee from Atlanta whose company Intent Solutions has created a dispenser that helps monitors when and how much medication a person is taking, said he supports Obama’s efforts to destigmatize addiction.

“Most important, we can’t blame them (people with substance abuse disorders]. We have to treat them with respect,” he said.

Naloxone and the Cop

"I immediately took my Narcan out, squirted a milligram of Narcan into her nose and within about 20 seconds [she] took this big gasping breath," said Woodstock, Georgia, police officer Shane Bonebrake as he recounts saving a woman from overdose with the anti-opioid Naloxone. Bonebrake discusses the usage of opioid antidotes by police in this brief video about the emergency drug Naloxone. More multimedia reporting about Naloxone and its use in combatting opioid overdose will be published later in the year.

How to Talk to Kids about Drugs — and How Not to

"How to Talk to Kids about Drugs (and How Not To)"
From their own experiences, young adults in recovery share what we should — and shouldn't say — to young people who may be using drugs or alcohol. "One of the worst things you can do is add anxiety to that situation... pass judgement..." This video is part of a series about substance use disorder among youth — and how we can help prevent or treat it when it occurs.

[More JJIE videos]


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