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Stories of Children and Youth


Prosecuting teens as adults—Prosecutor Mackie says
hands are tied

Juvenile Justice Part III: Washtenaw County— County Prosecutor Brian Mackie talks about the prosecution of teenagers as adults.

Over the past 30 months, in Washtenaw County, 12 of 1,353 juveniles were charged as adults. Eight of those 12 charged were black, and all but one were boys. Nine were from Ypsilanti. The documentation provided were not court records and did not reveal the juveniles’ names. Four of the cases involved criminal sexual conduct while the others involved carjacking, robbery and assault.

You might think children are children throughout the county. You’d be wrong. In Michigan—just one of 10 states—juveniles are treated differently in the eyes of the law than they are throughout most of the county. Beginning in the late 1980s through the mid 90s, Michigan enacted a series of laws broadening the scope of its authority to treat juveniles as adults.

In the wake of these new laws, the state convicted one of the youngest children in U.S. history — Nathaniel Abraham, who was found guilty of shooting Ronnie Green Jr. to death with a .22-calibre rifle in Pontiac, Mich. in 1997. Abraham was 11 at the time of the shooting. Since then, the waves from this so-called crack down on youth crime has rippled throughout Michigan’s court system.

According to a report titled Youth Behind Bars released in June by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCDD), these laws eliminated the minimum age a child can be convicted as an adult and enabled prosecutors more options to file juvenile offenses in adult court without judicial oversight. The laws also ensured that all 17-year-olds are considered adults, causing the court to automatically charge and try them as such. Once tried as an adult, a youth can never re-enter the juvenile court system.

In Washtenaw County, County Prosecutor Brian Mackie and Anthony Kendrick, first assistant county prosecutor, say because the distinction that considers 17-year-olds as adults is statutory, prosecutors have no latitude to make decisions on a case-to-case basis. Kendrick contested the notion that once a juvenile is tried as an adult that they will forever be considered an adult by the court.

Still, there is no disputing that an adult conviction creates life-long waves, erecting barriers to employment, housing and even education. Youth with an adult conviction on their records can expect to see their earning power diminished by 40 percent over their life, according to the Youth Behind Bars report. Why 17-year-olds warrant treatment as adults is a political issue for politicians in Lansing, Mackie added.

“It’s not an exemption of any kind. It’s just how someone in the Legislature decided it should be done,” Mackie said. “Make it 18. Make it 19. The real difference is, if you change it, suddenly the juvenile system is much more expensive.”

It’s not just prosecutors who have had their hands tied by these laws. According to a 2008 Justice Center report, sentencing guidelines require nearly all felony offenders sentenced to prison serve all the minimum sentence imposed by the judge. Only under narrow parameters do judges impose a maximum sentence tailored to the specifics of a case. Again, sentencing is set by state guidelines.

Additionally, according to the Justice Center report, Michigan has nearly 28,000 disconnected youth — those without a high school diploma who are neither working nor attending school — between the ages 16 and 19. These youth, the report asserts, are at a high risk for involvement in the criminal justice system.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, says that Michigan has turned its back on rehabilitation, instead focusing incarcerating juveniles. Instead of imposing draconian sentences, he said, Michigan should strive to remove kids from the situation that put them at risk for committing crime instead of removing them from the community.

“Expungements, sentencing guidelines, take the edge off harsh punishments,” Irwin said. “Let’s give them an opportunity to get back on their feet.”

The Ann Arbor Independent also contacted State Reps. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) and Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) for this article, but received no reply at press time.

According to a 2008 report conducted by the Michigan Juvenile Justice Collaborative (MJJC), although the arrest rate— 9 percent — for juveniles (ages 10 to 16) matches their population in the state (also 9 percent), there is a disportionate amount of black youth in the correctional system. Black youth are more likely to be confined, detained or arrested than white youth, accounting for 35 percent of such instances.

In 2012, 59 percent of youth waved or designated adults were black, despite only accounting for 18 percent of the youth population, according to the Youth Behind Bars report.

Mackie refuted the idea that reforms that would return 17-year-olds to juvenile status would make much difference, at least not in Washtenaw County. It is rare that prosecutors in Washtenaw County charge someone under 17 as an adult, he said. When they do, it’s important for prosecutors to look at the child’s history in the juvenile court, assessing whether they have been in that system for the same crime before. If they have a history, perhaps it’s time to recognize that the juvenile court system isn’t having the intended effect, he said.

“There are the occasional very serious crimes by 17-year-old,” Mackie said. “Most crimes that a 17-year-old commits, it’s not going to make much of a difference in the quality of life.”

The most common type of serious offense warranting charging juveniles as adults his office sees is criminal sexual conduct, Kendrick said.

By comparison, Maria Miller, director of the communications division at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, said in Wayne County prosecutors also look at the juvenile’s history when determining whether to consider someone under 17 as an adult.

“It’s the exception. Not the rule,” she said. “What I’m trying to establish in every person is a dangerous individual. All cases are different.”

In Wayne County, Miller said, such crimes are often first-degree murder. However, as the Youth Behind Bars report shows, nearly a quarter of transfer cases involve non-violent offenses. According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, 71 percent of probationers committed non-violent offenses and about two-thirds had no previous juvenile record. Attempts to get a more comprehensive understanding of the differences between Wayne and Washtenaw Counties went ignored by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.

Cases from January 1, 2012 to July 14, 2014 provided to The Ann Arbor Independent by the Washtenaw prosecutors office show the cases through that period; 12 of 1,353 juveniles were charged as adults. Eight of those 12 charged were black, and all but one were boys. Nine were from Ypsilanti. The documentation provided were not court records and did not reveal the juveniles’ names. Four of the cases involved criminal sexual conduct while the others involved carjacking, robbery and assault.

“A loaded gun always get our attention,” Kendrick said.

Irwin said juvenile justice is a partisan issue with Republicans blockading efforts for reform. He believes the money being spent on the juvenile court system could be better used for programs that work to reform instead of disenfranchise. Harsh sentencing guidelines and stiffer penalties, especially for non-violent crimes, do little to ensure these children are able to become productive members of society, he said.

In 2008, more than 78 percent of committed juveniles or juveniles on probation have been diagnosed or have a deferred diagnosis for a behavioral disorder, according to the MJJC, and more than 23 percent of them suffer from mental retardation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, juveniles exiting the system are 34 percent more likely to offend. They are also more likely to reoffend sooner and escalate to more violent crimes than their juvenile system counterparts.

“It’s not too late for these kids,” Irwin said. “What the government should be saying is ‘let’s roll up our sleeves and work together to make this work.’” Irwin said he would “certainly consider” sponsoring legislation that helps reform the juvenile justice system.

Despite Irwin’s characterization, Mackie said prosecutors lock up juveniles that are a threat to society, not those it’s mad at. Some people, he added, believe that no one should be prosecuted for anything, which simply isn’t realistic. Mackie acknowledged that juvenile justice requires a comprehensive approach, saying poverty plays a huge role in the juvenile justice system. Education and healthcare, he said, are also key to alleviating juvenile crime.

“You are not going to have a chance if you don’t educate kids young,” Mackie said. “We have the solutions. It’s the will that’s lacking.”

David Alexander
29 July 2014

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