New Washtenaw County Juvenile Justice Plan Focuses More On Rehabilitation Vs. Punishment

Jan 25, 2021

Juvenile Offender in Handcuffs
Credit The Conversation / theconversation.com

In under a month on the job, the new Washtenaw County prosecutor, Eli Savit, has announced a number of new criminal justice plans for the county, including a new approach to juvenile justice.

WEMU's Lisa Barry talked with Savit about his new suite of policy changes, which he says is long overdue and based on science, which will lead to better life outcomes for the youth involved.


Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit
Credit Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office / washtenaw.org

A new policy on juvenile crime was announced by Washtenaw county’s new prosecutor, Eli Savit.

He says they’re taking much more of a rehabilitative approach to juvenile justice in the county versus a punishment approach.  The new county prosecutor says scientific data shows a punishment based approach to juvenile justice does not work and doesn’t make us any safer either.

Savit says their goal is to address more juvenile issues outside the criminal legal system and says they will no longer criminally charge what he called “run-of-the-mill youthful mistakes.

From the prosecutor's office:

Children—and teenagers—are not just small adults.  And involvement in the criminal legal system often does kids more harm than good. 

That’s why, today, we’re announcing a suite of policy changes regarding juvenile charging.  Read our full policy here: https://www.washtenaw.org/…/…/19298/Juvenile-Charging-Policy

First, some background.  Science tells us young brains are developing—making young people likelier to engage in risky behavior; particularly susceptible to fear & trauma; & particularly susceptible to peer influence.

That makes adolescents more likely to run afoul of the law. 

The good news is, most young people will simply “age out” of crime—even if we do nothing.

The bad news?  Punishment often makes things worse.  A decades-long, intensive economic study demonstrates that incarcerating young people makes it *more* likely they’ll commit new crimes. 

So when we incarcerate young people, we’re not just disrupting lives.  We actually compromise long-term public safety.

And notably, the mere act of bringing a kid into the juvenile-justice system—even if it doesn’t instantly result in detention—can lead to detention down the road.  The case of “Grace,” a 15-year-old Michigan girl, demonstrates that point.  Grace was sent to detention—during COVID—because she failed to do her online homework.  The only reason a judge was able to order that is because Grace was *already* tied into the juvenile system. 

You can read more about Grace’s story from @propublica here: https://www.propublica.org/…/a-teenager-didnt-do-her-online…

More, you can read a hopeful update (she’s out and doing great now!) here: https://www.propublica.org/…/out-of-jail-and-back-in-school…

But another aspect of Grace’s story bears emphasis.

Grace is Black.  Black children are disproportionately likely to be subject to harsh treatment in the juvenile system—even for typical youthful mistakes.

This is the school-to-prison pipeline, writ large.  We must end it. 

So today, we’re moving away from a punishment-oriented juvenile system, and towards a focus on rehabilitation.

We’re building partnerships to address youth issues outside the legal system.  In the interim, we’ll no longer criminally charge run-of-the-mill youthful mistakes. 

What does this mean?  As always, read the full policy for details.  But some highlights.

First, all of our previous charging directives apply with full force to juveniles.  If we wouldn’t bring charges in the adult system, we’re not going to do it in the youth system. 

Second, we will not be seeking charges against young people for “status offenses”—running away from home, curfew violations, being a “disorderly person,” etc.  Nor will we criminally charge juvenile experimentation with, e.g., tobacco or vaping.

These charges sink the justice system’s hooks into young people, which can, frankly, ruin lives. 

If a young person is dealing with *serious* substance use issues & we can help, we’ll do that.  But we won’t involve the justice system for run-of-the-mill experiments with weed or alcohol.  And we’ll get kids resources—then dismiss all charges once programming is completed. 

We’ll also decline charges for run-of-the-mill school-based misbehavior (hallways fights, minor thefts from a classmate, etc), or from similar incidents that take place off school grounds.

Such incidents are best handled at the school level, or outside the justice system. 

Further, if restorative justice is an option in lieu of the traditional juvenile system, we’ll opt for that approach.  Restorative justice can far better mend the harm that was done—and prevent future recidivism. 

Finally, we have a general presumption against bringing charges where we know that a child’s behavior arose from a diagnosed disability or behavioral disorder. 

Punishing kids due to a disability is cruel, and is ultimately counterproductive. 

As always, we’re grateful to the amazing team that’s working with us on juvenile justice issues. So many in this community—law enforcement, juvenile judges, school leaders—have been working to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline for years.  Today, we’re doing our part. 

Today’s announcements are just a first step.  We’re looking to build out sustainable systems to address juvenile issues outside the criminal legal system.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu