The Word from Lansing: Reforming Juvenile Justice in Michigan

When society talks about youth there is a sense of hopefulness and excitement about their future, their growth, and their development. They will grow up to be parents, community members, and leaders of the state and the nation. Unfortunately, however, when policy conversations turn to crime, sobering statistics and trends about youth offenders emerge that cause concern. “Tough on crime” legislation enacted by Michigan lawmakers in the mid-1990s has led to a significant number of youth serving adult sentences. These policies have shifted a greater number of juvenile offenders into a dangerous adult system rather than providing the rehabilitation that should lead troubled youth down a more constructive path.

Clearly, youth are different than adults, especially when considering emotional and psychological development. These differences have been recognized by a growing number of cases in the United States Supreme Court. Scientific research proves that rational decision-making is not fully formed in an individual’s brain until they reach their mid-20s. As a result, youth are often more likely to make impulsive decisions without fully thinking through the consequences. At the same time, the fact that youth are still developing makes them more likely than adults to respond to rehabilitative programming.

Individuals in juvenile facilities or community-based programming receive mental health and substance abuse treatment, education, and vocational training while taking responsibility for their crime. In contrast, juveniles in adult facilities are often segregated or kept in isolation, as federal law requires that they be kept “sight and sound” from adults. While this requirement is aimed at protecting youth, segregation and isolation too often increase the risk of depression, anxiety, or self-harm. From 2003 to 2013, over 20,000 Michigan juveniles received an adult sentence, including detention in jail or imprisonment for their crime (Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency). A majority of these crimes were for nonviolent offenses.

Rates of juvenile crime and recidivism demonstrate that the “tough on crime” approach is not working. In fact, without proper rehabilitation, youth reoffend at a rate between 50 and 75 percent. Recently, a “smart on crime” approach has gained momentum in the legislature, which encourages the use of evidence-based programming to reduce incarceration rates. “Smart on crime” measures recognize that the causes of crime are complex, improvements to reentry services are critical to lowering recidivism, and alternative sentencing for low-level, nonviolent offenses can be effective.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on Restorative Justice correlates well with “smart on crime” policies. It seeks to support victims, hold offenders accountable, protect community safety, promote healing and forgiveness, and inspire rehabilitation in the offender’s life. The justice system should punish offenders for their crimes, including youth, but it must also be as rehabilitative as possible.

In October, Michigan lawmakers introduced a bipartisan package of bills to address juvenile justice. Michigan Catholic Conference is supportive of measures that would return the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18 and prevent youth under age 18 from being housed in adult prisons and jails.

During his trip to the United States in September, Pope Francis visited a correctional facility in Philadelphia. There, before greeting prisoners and their families, the pope expressed sadness that too often, prison systems “are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities.” He then called on society to be a part of the effort to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes. The Catholic community shares in the responsibility to promote policies and programming that prepare juveniles (and adult offenders) to return to their communities and positively contribute to society.

To learn more about legislation related to juvenile justice, read Michigan Catholic Conference’s latest FOCUS essay, Reforming Juvenile Justice in Michigan at