County ponders cost of criminal justice reform

Raise the Age bills could strain already strained county system

News Photo by Julie Riddle Following a national trend, the Michigan Legislature is considering bills that would treat 17-year-olds as juveniles in the criminal justice system. Michigan is one of four states that places 17-year-olds in adult prisons and jails.

ALPENA — A 17-year-old should not be considered an adult, a recent vote by Michigan Legislature implies. At least not as far as the court system is concerned.

Michigan is currently one of only four states — along with Texas, Georgia, and Wisconsin — that still treats 17-year-olds as adults in the court system. Two bill packages approved separately by the state House and the state Senate at the end of April would, if finalized, raise the age for being tried as an adult to 18 for most crimes.

In Alpena, practical and financial considerations cause concern about the possibility of raising the age of criminal responsibility.

Supporters of the so-called Raise the Age bills contend that 17-year-olds — who are not allowed to vote, enter into legal contracts, or enlist in the military — should not be treated as adults. Rehabilitative efforts only available in the juvenile justice system can still be effective on youth younger than 18, many believe, increasing public safety in the long term.

Avoiding a criminal record may increase a young person’s ability to find future employment and housing, thereby fighting against a cycle of poverty that could lead to more crime.

Kids, indeed, should be treated as kids, according to Alpena County Prosecutor Ed Black. Young people who cannot vote should, in general, not be in the adult system, Black said, with the exception of youth who commit specific, serious crimes or who have exhausted all options through the juvenile justice system.

Those exceptions, which exist in the current statutes, would still be in effect if the Raise the Age bills passes.

The concern raised locally by the proposed legislation, according to Black, is largely a financial one. The legislation could potentially place a large burden on the county to provide for housing and care that is currently funded by the state. That’s a challenge made more difficult by the already struggling status of the county’s Child Care Fund, which is used, among other things, to pay for the costs incurred by the juvenile court system.

Janelle Mott, financial officer for the Juvenile Division of the 26th Circuit Court, handles all financial aspects of juvenile court in Alpena and Montmorency counties. In addition, Mott supervises the juvenile probation staff and sometimes meets with the young people going through the system. It can be hard, Mott said, to make decisions and give reports from a purely numerical standpoint.

“If you knew what we knew, learned what we learned, you’d spend a thousand dollars a day on every one of these kids in hopes that it might change the trajectory of their life,” Mott said.

Money, however, is a reality that can’t be ignored. Since 2013, Mott has had to annually request more funds for the care her department is required to give to the youth who go through the juvenile system.

In February, Mott informed the Alpena County Board of Commissioners that, if current trends continued, the Child Care Fund would be $200,000 short this fiscal year. The board allocated an additional $100,000, leaving Mott the option to request the other additional $100,000 if and when needed.

Both versions of the Raise the Age bill include a provision to increase state funding to counties to help with additional costs created by implementation of the bills. The details of those provisions — and the decision as to where the money would come from — still need to be ironed out. Covering all the expenses incurred by counties specifically for treating 17-year-olds as juveniles would cost the state an estimated $19.2 million to $53.6 million, according to the state House Fiscal Agency.

The funding, if approved and made available to counties, would require a complicated process of splitting out costs for employees and programs that incorporate juveniles of a range of ages and may necessitate the creation of a program only for 17-year-olds, a labor-intensive process.

The Raise the Age bills are of concern to the juvenile court, Mott said, because, if 17-year-olds are no longer sentenced to prison or jail time but instead require local supervision or residential placement, the cost to the taxpayers from an already strained system would be significant.

Low-level offenders, who may not require incarceration, often receive a sentence that includes supervised probation. Currently, probation officers are able to meet with their charges regularly, in a wide variety of settings, and to make the meaningful, in-person contact that the juveniles need to be able to make necessary rehabilitative changes.

If the juvenile division adds 17-year-olds to their caseload, Mott said, both the length of probation and the number of youth on probation would increase. The county would have to foot the bill for hiring additional staff to meet state restrictions on caseload size for probation officers.

The number of 17-year-olds entering district court last year was not immediately available. But, in 2018, the Alpena County Jail took in 37 17-year-olds, some of them returning after a probation violation from a previous crime.

Many young offenders, who often arrive in court with a history of abuse, neglect, or other devastating home situations, need to be removed from their homes by the courts and placed in residential housing. That, Mott said, can cost taxpayers $150 to $600 per day, per offender. Adding 17-year-olds to the current load of young people needing residential housing will quickly sap an already struggling Child Care Fund.

Even if funding were not a concern, finding room for juveniles in alternative housing situations is already very difficult, according to Mott, and will become much more so if all the counties in the state are trying to find room for their 17-year-olds in the few facilities available.

Not all juveniles in the court system require residential placement. A large percentage are, according to Mott, good kids who made a bad decision.

“I’d say 90 to 95% of our kids come through one time, do their terms of probation, complete their community service, are never removed from their home, and six months after we hear their name for the first time, they’re released from probation and that’s it,” Mott said.

The concern, then, with the potential passage of the Raise the Age bill, lies in that 5% to 10% percent of youth who are repeat offenders or who commit serious crimes.

It’s not unheard of for a young person to appear in juvenile court for the first time on a serious felony charge, Mott said. Most of the time, however, the people they see in their system start with smaller offenses and work their way up to such crimes as burglary or home invasion.

“If you do this long enough, you can see them starting to evolve. You can see them starting to associate with people who are older, who engage in criminal conduct, and we try to curb that,” Mott said. “We try to get out ahead of that, but we’re not always successful.”

In addition to funding and placement concerns, Mott wonders, from years of working with the juvenile system, if treating a 17-year-old as a juvenile will truly make a difference in their final outcome.

“If you turn 17 years old and we haven’t helped you to make better decisions, stopped you from engaging in further delinquent activity, I don’t know what 12 more months is going to do,” Mott said.

“You’ve got a shot. I mean, maybe it will make a difference,” she continued. “Everybody else is doing it, I guess that’s why the state wants us to do it, but that’s always the concern, that we’re going to end up doing more oversight and less enacting actual change.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.