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Michigan's juvenile justice system – a 1700s approach?

Nov 18, 2014

Credit publik16 / flickr

In 1978, a group of teenagers in Wayne County beat, stabbed, and killed another young person named Dennis Rhodes in order to steal his bike. 

One of those young people, Jeffrey Dunbar, was tried and sentenced as an adult. Dunbar was sentenced to life without parole. 

This decision is only one year younger than I am. It seems utterly unremarkable in its treatment of a juvenile as an adult.

Throughout my life it's been routine for kids like Jamarion Lawhorn, who is 12, to be treated as adults by the justice system. But in 1985, Michigan's Supreme Court overturned that Dunbar decision. The court said Dunbar wasn't an adult, hadn't been judged to be a danger to the community, and his case should have stayed in juvenile court because that's where he would be more likely to be rehabilitated. The court was taking a stand against the creep of the adult criminal justice system into the domain of the juvenile court.

That separation wouldn't last much longer.

Rehabilitation and punishment can be competing objectives of the juvenile justice system. In the early 1900s, Michigan was just establishing its juvenile justice system, and the whole point behind a separate system was a belief in the possibility of rehabilitation. I would not want any part of treatment couched as reformative in the early 2oth century, but rehabilitation was the idea.

If you accept that kids and adults have a different understanding of morality or maybe even of consequences, it makes sense these two groups should be treated differently when they break society's rules. The idea is that kids can be taught to live by these rules in the future. The primary concern of the adult criminal justice system, on the other hand, is punishment. 

But since the Dunbar case, Michigan's juvenile justice laws and practices have increasingly mirrored the adult corrections system, and its punishment approach. To find a time in American history where children were routinely punished as adults before the 1990s ushered in these changes, you'd have to go back to the 1700s.

Michigan law, since 1996, allows any child no matter their age that is charged with one of 17 crimes to be tried and sentenced as an adult.

There are some juvenile facilities in the state that still have a strong focus on rehabilitation. There are those that use methods like cognitive behavioral therapy, for example. But juveniles across the state are also being punished using tactics like solitary confinement. Another mirror of the adult system is how hard it can be to live down an offense. Even for minor offenses, juvenile records are not confidential, and are hard to clear

Even in the little things, like how juveniles are routinely shackled while appearing in court, Michigan's system mirrors the punitive approach of the criminal justice system.  

It's not easy to find a balance between the needs of communities, crime victims, and the kids that commit these offenses. Michigan might try to get closer to a compromise when it looks into some approaches that are more community-based and less punitive over the next months and years.