Mary is a mom.*
She’s packed plenty of lunches, sat through lots of karate classes and driven her kids to countless events. She and her husband have been married for 37 years and have six kids. As a mom, she works hard to make sure her family can get by—Mary has worked at the local high school for 21 years, both in the cafeteria and as a custodian.*
One night, shortly after her husband had gone through open heart surgery, she got the call that her youngest son was in trouble. He’d been out with some friends when they decided to break into houses.
Like any mom, Mary was angry. She knew Jacob was smarter than this, and she knew he needed to shape up. She was almost relieved when he was sentenced to juvenile detention for a month, despite the cost to her family.
“But his probation officer kept telling him, ‘You’re lucky you’re not 17. They’d lock you up in prison if you were older,’” Mary said. “Unfortunately, my son didn’t learn much from that.”
His dad’s illness and the typical struggles that all teenagers endure was too much for Jacob, Mary said.
“He had so many burdens, so much stress, and he started hanging out with older kids again.”
A year later, Mary got a second call. This time, Jacob had an unloaded firearm when the police picked him up with a group of friends. He was ultimately charged with armed robbery.
Jacob’s unloaded gun raises the issue of teenage brain development. A 15-year-old’s brain would process this differently than a fully-developed brain: The gun wasn’t even loaded, so it should be obvious that I meant to hurt no one. Adolescent brains are not equipped to fully process and react to the world around them—this is one of the main reasons raising the age is important. Advances in the study of brain development show that kids like Jacob are not capable of navigating situations as well as adults, but our justice system has not kept pace with science.
Mary did everything she could to make sure Jacob’s case was handled properly, but in the end it was out of her hands.
“They put him back in a juvenile center, but only until he was 16. Once he turned 16, they took him out and tried him as an adult. Two years later, he’s still in prison.”
Jacob will celebrate his 18th birthday in the Thumb Correctional Facility, a prison in Lapeer. Stories like this are the reason Michigan lawmakers are working to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in Michigan. Currently, 17-year-olds are automatically tried as adults in our system, regardless of the crime. A bipartisan package of bills to change this is currently before the legislature, but time is running out to get it passed before the session ends.
He’s housed with other younger offenders, but he’s around adults much of the day.
“He’s in contact with those older criminals when he eats, when he goes in the yard. It’s not a good situation,” Mary said. In fact, it’s a downright dangerous situation. While Jacob has not experienced violence while in prison, studies show that youth incarcerated in adult facilities more likely to be physically attacked, sexually assaulted and attempt suicide than young people in the juvenile justice system.
She talks to him as often as she can, but a 15-minute phone call costs $3. That adds up for a working family that already owes $40,000 in fees related to Jacob’s offenses.
Jacob earned his GED while in custody and wants to go to college when he gets out.
“He tells me, ‘Mom, I don’t understand. They wanna make us better and help us learn. But how do they expect us to learn in here? All these guys do is sit and talk about their crimes and what they’ve done in the past. They don’t talk about learning.”
Jacob is right to be on guard. Research shows that youth exiting the adult system are 34% more likely to re-offend, re-offend sooner, and escalate to more violent offenses than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system.
Mary said she wished people had helped her with Jacob sooner—she said the family asked for help before his second arrest.
“I remember going up to the probation officer and the attorney, begging them to find me a mentor, to get him a big brother. Anything. My husband’s illness won’t let him be the kind of dad he wants to be, and I knew Jacob could straighten up if he had the right influence. But they didn’t help me. They didn’t do anything until Jacob needed punishment.”
With her husband on dialysis, Mary says they don’t make the three-and-a-half hour trip to Lapeer often enough. They see their son about once a month.
“I know that my son did wrong, and I know he needs to be punished. But this is harsh. For a 16-year-old to be shipped over three hours away from his parents…it’s not right.”
Raising the age may not have changed the outcome of Jacob’s case. The specifics of his crime would likely have put him in the adult system regardless of the proposed policy.
But Jacob’s is the kind of story we hear often in Michigan. Instead of our kids getting the supports and treatment they need as youngsters, they’re shuffled through a system designed for adults.
Kids like Jacob and moms like Mary could breathe a bit easier if Michigan raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 17.
Juvenile courts offer highly effective diversion and community-based programs not accessible in adult court. Because the majority of 17-year-olds have non-violent charges, they would likely respond well to community-based options that are designed to keep kids in school, address underlying treatment needs, and engage the whole family.
*This blog post addresses the serious issue of juvenile jurisdiction in Michigan. When Mary contacted us with her story, we promised to reveal only what she was comfortable sharing. For that reason, we’ve left last names and other details out of the post. If you have a story to share, please submit it here.