Washtenaw County moves 17-year-old non-assault offenders to juvenile facilities

Thursday, March 14, 2019 - 8:21pm

Washtenaw County will no longer hold 17-year-olds charged with non-assault offenses in adult prisons.

Washtenaw County will no longer hold 17-year-olds charged with non-assault offenses in adult prisons. Buy this photo
Darby Stipe/Daily

Washtenaw County is now holding 17-year-olds charged with non-assault crimes in juvenile facilities rather than adult prisons while they await their trials.

Eric Kunath, corrections commander at the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, said moving 17-year-olds to juvenile facilities was put into effect March 1. He believes this is a good decision because they are at a higher risk for bodily harm in adult facilities.  

“All the research out there shows that they’re at a higher likelihood to be preyed upon,” Kunath said. “Seventeen-year-olds in an adult facility, they’re at a higher risk for suicide, higher risk for all these bad things that the research indicates. No, they don’t belong in an adult facility.”

He said the courts currently decide where 17-year-olds will wait for their trials.

“Judges and magistrates make the decisions on who, at arraignment time, which 17-year-olds are to stay in the jail and which 17-year-olds are to be transferred to the juvenile facility,” Kunath said.

Last month, the Michigan Legislature reintroduced a bill to raise the criminal adult age from 17 to 18. Currently, Michigan is one of four states to charge 17-year-olds as adults. The bill was initially shot down back in 2018 because Michigan’s Department of Treasury claimed the cost of moving 17-year-olds to juvenile facilities would be too expensive. State Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, said this bill would allow young people to reform themselves and stay out of the criminal system.

A study conducted by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency in 2014 called Youth Behind Bars found most minors in adult facilities are non-violent offenders. They also found adult facilities do not have the proper tools to deal with youth concerns, such as dealing with addictions and mental health issues specific to minors. The study stated over half of juvenile offenders entered the system with known drug or alcohol abuse issues and mental health concerns, and approximately 1,500 young people had at least one dependent.

Sheriff Jeff Clayton told Detroit News that keeping 17-year-olds in adult jails does not make the community safer because they do not offer age-appropriate facilities.

LSA junior Madison Carlson has studied the effects of 17-year-olds in adult prisons in several of her psychology courses. She believes minors do not belong in adult prisons since they are not mentally or physically adults.

“Putting young kids in adult prison is awful for their mental and physical health,” Carlson said. “When you’re so young, your brain isn’t developed fully yet, and being put in prison with adult males is extremely dangerous. They have no way to fend for themselves because of their young age.”

She agrees with the bipartisan bill charging 17-year-olds as minors based on the differences of maturity.  

“Like I’ve stated before, their brains aren’t fully developed compared to that of a 45-year-old man,” Carlson said. “I do not believe that a young 17-year-old boy should have the same charges as a grown 50-year-old man, as they do not have as much life experience.”