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.
This is part of The Long Wait, a series exploring the Illinois Prisoner Review Board’s process for deciding on parole for a group of inmates who remain in prison for serious crimes committed before 1978.
The crime would send shockwaves through the Chicago police department for decades.
On a summer day in 1970, two Chicago Police officers assigned to the “walk and talk” team, meant to improve relations between police and the community at the Cabrini-Green public housing projects, were walking across a field when gunfire erupted. Surrounded by the high-rise buildings, snipers fired on the men, killing them both.
Police quickly built a case against two young men, who they said were members of street gangs. Johnnie Veal, then 17, and George Knights, then 23, were both charged with two counts of murder and tried together. While there was physical evidence presented against Knights, none directly tied Veal to the crime. Both insisted they were not guilty.
Both were convicted and sentenced to terms of 100 to 199 years in prison with the opportunity for parole. That has left them among the 121 men and one woman at the mercy of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which has consistently rejected their efforts to seek parole.
The board’s decisions, an Injustice Watch examination found, are often inconsistent and arbitrary. Veal is among a number of the prisoners who, finding the door to parole shut year after year, have turned to the courts in a desperate effort to win freedom.
Veal filed a petition last year in Cook County Circuit Court contending that because the parole board is not meaningfully considering his release, he has been illegally sentenced to life without parole — a sentence that the U.S. Supreme Court said cannot be automatically imposed under the Constitution on 17-year-olds. Earlier this year, as the board again turned away a parole request from Knights, board chairman Craig Findley commented, “I just don’t see how George Knights or Johnnie Veal could ever be released.”
Veal’s plea was rejected by Cook County Circuit Judge Rickey Jones in July 2016. He is appealing.
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the board has “complete discretion” in deciding parole, and that unlike other states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, its decisions are not generally reviewable. The court noted that parole board decisions are “often based on subjective factors and predictions rather than objective factors.”
Prisoners in Illinois can only turn to the courts if the board fails to hold required parole hearings — whatever the outcome — or if the board acts in an unconstitutional way, such as denying parole based on a defendant’s race.
While evidence of a defendant’s innocence is critical in court, it tends to work against prisoners seeking parole. Prisoners’ refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the crime — even if they insist they are innocent — is often held against them in board deliberations.
In Veal’s case, a fingerprint of his co-defendant, Knights, was discovered on a box of bullets in a high-rise’s incinerator room after the shooting. Police traced the bullets to a store in Indiana, where Knights signed the purchase slip for the ammunition, according to court records.
But there was no physical evidence against Veal, according to court records, and no witnesses said they saw Veal commit the crime. The case against him was built on the word of several witnesses who testified that Veal made statements before and after the murders indicating he was involved.
Three boys, also gang members, were among the key witnesses against him. They each recanted after the trial.
When Veal’s last parole request came before the board in 2014, one factor board members considered was his lack of remorse for the crimes, board minutes show. His supporters tried to justify Veal’s response, saying, “You cannot ask a man to admit guilt for something he did not do,” the minutes show.
The board’s repeated rejection of his parole spurred Veal to try the courthouse. “Time is of the essence,” he said in an interview from Hill Correctional Center. “Tomorrow’s not promised to me, so I’m trying to get the best I can get, to try to get to where I’m supposed to be with family and loved ones.”
In another police killing case, Ronnie Carrasquillo, who was sentenced in 1978 for shooting Chicago police officer Terrence Loftus, also filed a petition in the Cook County Circuit Court stating that he has no real chance at parole because the victim in his case was a policeman. Like Veal, Carrasquillo, who had turned 18 months before the crime, contends that the board’s routine denials have resulted in an automatic life sentence without parole.
Carrasquillo also argues in a separate petition that his hefty sentence was unfairly imposed by a corrupt judge to deflect the sharp public criticism he received months earlier after acquitting mob hitman Harry Aleman in a nonjury trial. At a September hearing on that petition, Carrasquillo’s trial attorney, Glenn Seiden, testified that an FBI agent later made comments to him suggesting a link between those cases.
More than a decade after Carrasquillo was convicted, Wilson committed suicide after the FBI confronted him about evidence that he had taken a $10,000 bribe to acquit the mob hitman. “Only a corrupt judge would have sentenced a teen-aged boy under these circumstances to a draconian sentence of 200-600 years,” Carrasquillo’s petition states.
While Carrasquillo and Veal, among other prisoners, try to overturn their verdicts arguing they were unjustly convicted or sentenced, such evidence carries little weight in their separate proceedings before the Prisoner Review Board.
Legally, the board is required to focus solely on whether an inmate is an acceptable risk for release, said the board’s legal counsel, Jason Sweat. Because inmates have already gone through trial and sentencing, speculating on the quality of trial evidence, Sweat said, is not up for consideration.
Claims of innocence have not always been an obstacle to parole.
In late 2005, the board paroled Duffie Clark, who was convicted in 1971 of slaying two youth on Chicago’s South Side. Clark’s attorney, Dana Orr Williams, said in prior years Clark had not received any votes in favor of his parole. He only was released once she presented information sowing doubt in the evidence of his guilt.
Williams said she thinks her argument and the questions she raised about Clark’s guilt resonated with the board members who voted in his favor. Parole was granted despite his refusal to be contrite, she said, which “did not go over well” with all members of the board. Williams said Clark “wasn’t going to cop to something he didn’t do.”
In other cases, board members cite that lack of contrition as they deny parole. Carrasquillo has long contended he did not intend to shoot the police officer, who was in plainclothes at the time, causing then-board member Angela Blackman-Donovan to comment that Carrasquillo “won’t own up to it,” according to meeting minutes from 2013. She then voted against his parole.
Sitting in a visiting room recently in Dixon Correctional Center, Carrasquillo discussed his plans for a life outside prison. If he is ever released, he would be starting a life when most others his age would be nearing retirement.
He recognizes the struggle to win over the board members.
He has more faith, he said, in being released through the courts than the parole board. “They see me as a lifer,” he said of the board members. “It’s that simple.”
Injustice Watch co-director Rob Warden, who co-authored the book “Greylord,” is being called as an expert to testify about me=dia coverage of Judge Frank Wilson, on behalf of Carrasquillo’s petition. As a result Warden played no role in reporting or editing this series.
This article was written by and originally ran in Injustice Watch.
This story was written for The Marshall Project.
A nationwide shift toward abolishing solitary confinement for juveniles, which began to take shape in 2016 after former President Barack Obama banned the practice in federal prisons, has surged ahead in recent months, with a half-dozen states either prohibiting or strictly limiting its use in their youth facilities.
In just the past year, a series of strongly worded federal court decisions, new state laws and policy changes in Wisconsin, Tennessee, New York, California, Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina have nearly eliminated “punitive” solitary — holding youth in isolation for long periods of time rather than briefly for safety purposes — from the juvenile justice system. It was already largely prohibited in at least 29 states, according to a July 2016 survey of policies in all states and the District of Columbia.
The developments suggest that long-term isolation is rapidly losing ground as an accepted practice within the juvenile corrections profession, and that a child-specific definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” is now being established by courts across the country.
“These diverse courts seem to all at once be coming to the same conclusion: that solitary confinement of kids, who are our most vulnerable citizens, is unconstitutional,” said Amy Fettig, an expert on the issue for the ACLU.
But for youth advocates, ending juvenile solitary will take more work. Twenty-three percent of juvenile facilities nationally use some form of isolation, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The practice still has support from many, though not all, juvenile corrections administrators and officers, who are often underpaid, overworked and exhausted from double shifts and who believe solitary is the only disciplinary tool available to them without adequate mental health resources or alternative discipline options.
“The front-line staff, historically, they’ve been trained to use isolation as a means to control violent behavior and to keep themselves safe, and now we tell them, ‘Hey, there’s a different way to do things,’” said Mike Dempsey, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. “So there is pushback, resistance, fear — a fear that changes like these will basically create unsafe conditions.”
But the momentum for juvenile solitary reform continues, with the latest development coming in July in Wisconsin, where a federal judge ruled that children at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prison complex — one of the largest juvenile facilities in the nation and long the subject of litigation — have an age-specific “right to rehabilitation” and that “solitary confinement violates it.”
Under the preliminary injunction issued by Judge James Peterson of Federal District Court in Madison on July 10, Wisconsin officials must stop holding youths in solitary for longer than seven days, and must allow them outside their cells for at least 30 hours a week. (They had previously been held in isolation for periods of 60 days or longer, according to the underlying lawsuit by the ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center.) The youths must also be provided therapy, education and recreation, the judge said.
A spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said that while the agency has moved to implement these changes, “The merits of the case have not been decided.”
The injunction echoes one in March by another federal judge, in Tennessee, who blocked a county from placing juveniles in solitary confinement. And in February, a third federal judge, in yet another preliminary injunction, ordered a Syracuse, N.Y., jail to immediately stop putting 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary, citing the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
The rulings also come in the wake of — and perhaps as a result of — two events involving juvenile solitary that drew national attention. The first was the death of Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old from the Bronx who, after being accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 — a charge he denied — was held at the Rikers Island jail for three years, about two of which he spent in solitary. In 2015, after finally having his case dismissed and gaining his release, he hanged himself in his own home.
It was an image that, for many, drove home the total and long-term damage that isolation can do to young people, a group that depends more than most on social contact, educational stimulus, and a sense of purpose. More than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities take place in solitary, according to the Justice Department.
Soon after, in January 2016, Obama banned the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons and also wrote an op-ed article citing Browder’s case and calling the practice “an affront to our common humanity.” It was a largely symbolic move, given that only 26 juveniles were being held in the federal system at that time. But many advocates credit it as an act of policy leadership that has spurred the flurry of state and local reforms in the year since.
In the months following, both California and Colorado legislatively banned the use of punitive solitary in juvenile facilities for periods longer than four hours. (However, an ACLU report published this year notes that despite the new law, Colorado’s youth corrections department placed juveniles in solitary 2,240 times in 2016.) And both North Carolina and Connecticut in 2016 limited the solitary confinement of teenagers held in adult facilities, a different but related policy change. Since youth in adult prisons must by federal law be segregated from adult prisoners, they are often held in isolation for no reason other than to keep them separate.
Yet despite the recent spurt of reforms, according to a Juvenile Law Center report, states like Nebraska are still regularly holding youth in isolation. And in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a bill this year that would have restricted solitary for juveniles in adult prisons. She said it would have put guards in danger and hampered their flexibility to choose the best disciplinary options for the most violent inmates and also to keep youths fully separated from adults.
Even in the places where reform has been enacted, the work of translating a judge’s order or a new piece of legislation into actual, sustained culture change remains to be done, according to a report from the Juvenile Law Center.
Indeed, many juvenile justice agencies, when challenged by litigation or legislation, simply rename solitary confinement using one of a variety of well-worn euphemisms: “room confinement,” “special management unit,” “restricted engagement,” “administrative detention,” “time out,” or even “reflection cottage.” Other agencies just reclassify the type of isolation as “nonpunitive” in their official statistics, calling it “temporary” or for the limited purpose of protecting the youth or those around him from harm.
“Anytime you’re talking about new or additional training,” said Dempsey, the executive director of the juvenile corrections administrators council, “it does cost money. It takes investment in alternative techniques, and that can be hard because in this line of work there’s always turnover and staff shortages.”
That’s why Dempsey’s organization and the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, which aims to end juvenile solitary within three years, provide on-the-ground technical assistance to state and local agencies that might otherwise be inclined toward superficial reform. Juvenile justice officials from Kansas, for instance, were brought to a successful facility in Massachusetts to observe alternatives to solitary for themselves, said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and a leader of the campaign.
To Fettig, the ACLU advocate, the cause could not be more urgent. “Imagine if you left a kid locked in a small room for 70 days. Well, that same action is taken by state governments all over this country!” she said. “When you do this to children, they do not come back.”
This story originally appeared in The Marshall Project.
Decades of research from the fields of criminology and adolescent brain science find that the decisions made in youth — even very unwise decisions — do not crystallize criminality. Instead, as young people age and mature they develop the capacity to make different choices.
Fortunately, more informed policies have begun to replace the punishments that proliferated during the 1990s when fear of “superpredators” and calls for “adult time, adult crime” dominated youth crime policy. The incarceration rate for youth in juvenile and adult systems soared then. Today, youth incarceration in juvenile facilities is now half its level of 20 years ago. Driven by the work of advocates, legislators, researchers and judges, many now readily acknowledge that the juvenile justice system should be used sparingly and only for those who truly need confinement.
Based mostly on the adolescent brain science discoveries that concluded that executive functioning is not fully developed until adulthood, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty for juveniles violated the 8th Amendment. The Supreme Court has taken up the issue of severe sanctions for juveniles three more times since then, and as a result there are restrictions in the use of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juveniles.
Changing public sentiment regarding the wisdom of sending young people to adult prisons has led policymakers in many states to revise misguided policies in this area. Many juveniles who would otherwise be languishing in adult prisons are now either in juvenile confinement facilities that are better designed for their needs or have been diverted from confinement altogether. In 2015, the number of juveniles held in adult prisons declined to less than 1,000, an 82 percent drop from the peak year in 1997.
These reforms have not resulted in any adverse public safety outcomes. Crime continues to be at historic lows.
Despite these advances, more than 9,000 people who were convicted as youth still do not stand to benefit from reforms either in the juvenile system or of the restrictions on punishments in the adult system. The Sentencing Project recently released a national study on the prevalence of life sentences nationwide, disaggregated by crime of conviction, race and ethnicity, gender and juvenile status. We obtained data from the states and federal Bureau of Prisons on the number of people serving three categories of life sentences: life with the possibility of parole (LWP), LWOP and virtual or de facto life sentences that amount to terms of 50 years or more. We learned that 1 in 7 prisoners is serving one of these sentences and that nearly 6 percent of the lifer population was under 18 at the time of the crime.
Aside from the roughly 2,300 individuals serving JLWOP there are approximately 7,000 juveniles who are serving parole-eligible life sentences around the country. For them, a statutory mandate or judicial decision has determined that spending the rest of their life in prison is reasonable if parole is not granted sooner. In New York, Georgia and Texas, more than 600 people sentenced for crimes in their youth have parolable life sentences. In California, which leads the nation in the category of life sentences, a notable 2,700 individuals are serving parole-eligible life for a crime committed under age 18.
In addition to the 7,000 juveniles serving life with parole, nationwide 2,000 individuals are serving de facto life sentences of 50 years or more for crimes committed when they were less than 18 years old. Louisiana reports 600 virtual lifers who were juveniles when their crime occurred and Texas reports nearly 450 such individuals.
The crimes committed by these juveniles were typically serious: 82 percent of lifers with the possibility of parole have been convicted of a homicide, and for half of these the crime was a first-degree murder. Among those serving de facto life for crimes committed as juveniles, 56 percent were convicted of a homicide and 94 percent were convicted of violent crime, including 22 percent for aggravated assault.
As with all life sentences, racial disproportionality is evident. African-American youth comprise more than half (53 percent) of the parolable and virtual life sentences, slightly less than their composition among the JLWOP population (63 percent). Overall, youth of color make up 81 percent of those serving life and virtual life sentences.
Some states stand out in the proportion of life and virtual life sentences being served by those who were young at the time of the crime. In Wisconsin, for instance, more than 11 percent of the life-sentenced population was a juvenile at the time of the crime. And while a first opportunity for parole comes after “only” 20 years in Wisconsin, we know from mounting research in parole politics and practices that rates of granting parole have fallen, particularly for those convicted of serious crimes and serving lengthy sentences. In Georgia, which in 2016 reported 600 people serving parole-eligible life sentences for crimes committed in their youth, the first opportunity for parole does not occur for 25 to 30 years. In Tennessee, the first parole hearing occurs only after a minimum of 51 years.
The requirement set forth in Graham v. Florida of a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” has shined a bright light on parole systems’ capacity and willingness to afford a second look, and when this should occur. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Virginia et al. v. Dennis LeBlanc (582 US ___) that Virginia’s “geriatric release” mechanism provided a sufficiently meaningful opportunity for release. Geriatric release allows review for those 60 years old and older; this means that LeBLanc and other people in his position will wait more than 40 years before being considered for release.
This and other lengthy terms of imprisonment stand to violate the spirit if not the letter of the recent court rulings. They also conflict with recent recommendations of the American Law Institute, a respected body of legal scholars and law practitioners that proposes a review after 10 years for any juveniles sentenced to terms longer than this.
Revised state laws for sentencing juveniles are being developed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court rulings. It is important to include in these considerations all youth with life and lengthy terms; their potential for reform and maturation is just as likely as for those sentenced to life without parole.
Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the author of numerous research reports on life sentences, most recently “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences.”
An era of prosecuting juveniles as adults may be coming to an end in numerous states as criminal justice officials face a growing recognition that many underage offenders have been mishandled in the adult system, details a story in Sunday’s New York Times.
While states from Connecticut to Wisconsin have started to roll back the generation’s old policies, many other states remain resistant to the change, citing the higher cost of adding more people to the juvenile systems at a time of crushing budget problems, says the paper.