Thursday, June 11, 2009

Focus More on Prevention

Change state law to allow for second chances

by Sen. Liz Brater
The Detroit Free Press
June 11, 2009

There are more than 350 people in the Michigan prison system who were under age 18 when sentenced to spend the rest of their life in prison without the possibility of parole. Many of them were abused or neglected as children. Many had emotional disorders. Many committed crimes with older codefendants who received lesser sentences.

The United States stands alone in the industrialized world in allowing children to be sentenced to life without parole. Michigan ranks third among states that sentence children to life, just behind Pennsylvania and Louisiana.

A package of bills that I have introduced in the Michigan Senate (a similar, pared-down package has received hearings in the House) would prohibit sentencing a juvenile to life without parole. These bills do not release a single felon. They allow those who were already sentenced to life in prison without parole to go before the Parole Board to have their case reviewed after 10 years.

According to National Institute of Mental Health studies, the brain of an adolescent continues to develop through age 25. The area governing reasoning, advanced thought and impulse control matures last, often causing youths to make decisions based on impulse and emotion, rather than logic. The acknowledgement of this difference in maturity, understanding and logic is what led us to have a juvenile justice system to begin with.

There is no question that some of these children have committed heinous crimes. Each case needs careful review, and the safety of the public must be paramount. But how many of these crimes could have been prevented if an adequate mental health system were in place? We have heard numerous stories of parents recognizing that their child needed help, turning to the mental health system, and failing to get access to care.

Michigan law allows children to be tried as adults, with no minimum age. The prosecutor, rather than the judge, determines which youths will be tried as adults. Prosecutors are not the right people to make this decision. They like to run for re-election showing that they are "tough on crime." We need to revisit these laws also, and we should repeal them.

Prosecutors also argue that this sentence prevents the practice of adults sending teens to execute crimes, knowing that they will do little time. If children are being used in this way, let's prosecute and punish the adults exploiting them.

As a society, we have failed these kids. There are many early childhood education programs, including the Perry School in Ypsilanti, that are nationally recognized to reduce the chance that a child will end up in the criminal justice system in his or her teen years. These programs cost $10,600 per child, versus the $30,000 a year we spend per inmate. Similarly, community mental health care, at $8,000-$11,000 a year per client, depending on the county, is much more economical than prison.

This approach is not only more humane, it is also more cost effective for the taxpayers.

Liz Brater is a Democrat who represents Ann Arbor in the Michigan Senate.


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