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Beginning in March of 2019, Washtenaw County will begin transferring some 17-year-old, non-violent offenders awaiting trial or sentence from the adult jail to the Youth Center (juvenile detention). Criminalizing children via incarceration in the adult system imparts significant detriment to public safety and the well-being of our youth. Raise the Age legislation changing the automatic age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 remains stalled in the Michigan Legislature, leaving Michigan as one of only four (4) states left with laws compelling the prosecution of 17 year-olds as adults rather than juveniles. Despite delays at the State level, Washtenaw County has decided to begin taking incremental steps toward alignment with national norms and best practices where possible, by housing some currently detained 17-year-olds who are awaiting trial or sentence in the County’s secure juvenile detention facility instead of the jail. Though until new state legislation is passed assigning 17 year-olds to the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, they will remain in the adult court system, Michigan law is ambiguous about where a 17-year-old in custody may be held.
A broad coalition of local elected officials, judiciary, and stakeholders are in agreement that Washtenaw County is well-positioned to act on its stated values on this matter. The County Youth Center is physically and operationally suited and licensed for the secure care and custody of young people 11-18 years old who are awaiting Court action, providing age appropriate services that include rehabilitative programs, therapy, mental health services, drug treatment, education and vocational training, all of which serve to change the trajectory of these young lives.
Youth Center Director Lisa Greco adds, “Taking resolute action to align with juvenile justice best practices is in everyone’s best interest. We are very fortunate in Washtenaw County to have both the physical infrastructure of a state-of-the-art Youth Center, as well as an outstanding team of youth service professionals with the heart and skill to carry out this thread of our community’s commitment to equity and social justice.
Coalition of County Elected Officials and Partners:
The Honorable Julia B. Owdziej, Washtenaw County Probate Judge
“With a proper vetting system, we will be able to balance the safety of the other children in detention with the need to educate and provide services to our 17 year olds.”
Linda Edwards-Brown, Washtenaw County Juvenile Court Administrator“In Michigan, the age of majority is 18. Seventeen year olds cannot vote, buy tobacco products, get married, enlist in the military, or even play the lottery. As Michigan considers raising the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18, what better time to transfer low level misdemeanants and those awaiting trial for low level misdemeanors from the jail to the juvenile detention center where they can take advantage of and benefit from, the myriad of services offered by the center.”
Jerry Clayton, Washtenaw County Sheriff
“Michigan is currently one of only four states that automatically prosecute all 17-year olds as adults. This practice is harmful to our young people. Contrary to the belief of some, placing these young people in adult facilities does not make our communities safer. Youth incarcerated in adult facilities are more likely to be physically attacked, sexually assaulted and attempt suicide than young people who receive services in the juvenile justice system. Research has found that youth who are incarcerated for similar offenses in the adult correctional system are 34 percent more likely to re-offend, re-offend sooner, and escalate to more violent offenses than young people who remain in the juvenile justice system. We have an excellent Youth Facility in Washtenaw County where young people who must be incarcerated can receive age appropriate services addressing the issues that brought them in contact with the criminal justice system. Except in rare and unique circumstances, the Youth Center is where 17-year-old children belong, for their benefit and that of the communities they are a part of.”
Delphia Simpson, Washtenaw County Chief Public Defender
“An enlightened criminal justice system recognizes that it is always safer to house teens with youth who are closer to their age and providing services to these youth increases their chances of future success. I have been fortunate enough to see the committed and experience staff of the Washtenaw County Youth Center provide our juvenile clients with therapeutic support and direction that has a lasting impact. Offering 17 year old teens these services long with educational programing in a safer environment gives these young people an extra step forward on the path to rehabilitation. It is simply the right thing to do.”
Dr. Scott Menzel, Superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District"School-age youth who become involved in the criminal justice system have often experienced significant trauma and have numerous barriers that interfere with their ability to obtain an education," Menzel said. "I applaud the County for their willingness and interest in seeking to place 17 year-olds in our youth center to provide them with programming and resources that are youth-focused, to meet their needs. Our work with adolescents is designed to help them develop skills and abilities to make more productive choices by building their resilience to cope with life challenges. "
Gregory Dill, Washtenaw County Administrator “Our jail and our youth center both do incredible work, each striving to positively impact the lives of those they serve. The current law in the State of Michigan though, that defines 17 yearolds as adults, is doing a disservice to these youngsters, denying them specialized, targeted services that are available in our youth center. Working collaboratively with families, schools and the legal system, the youth center seeks to provide options via education and counseling, rather than consequences through incarceration. It’s this community based approach that has proven successful in helping to change the lives of our children.”