Many Michigan adults can likely think back to their teen years and the many mistakes made along the way to adulthood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, during adolescence an individual's brain undergoes many significant and noteworthy changes. Research from the NIH indicates that "the parts of the brain responsible for more 'top-down' control, controlling impulses, and planning ahead—the hallmarks of adult behavior—are among the last to mature." This type of key scientific information must be taken into consideration when addressing the best way to deal with, rehabilitate and help juvenile offenders.
In Michigan 17-year-old teens are convicted as adults. For teens and young adults ages 17 to 20, the state offers an alternative sentencing program called the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act. While participation in HYTA is touted as sort of a second chance and an alternative to a traditional prison sentence, a recent news story revealed that many HYTA participants are still sentenced to prison and, until recently, were often forced to live among the general prison population.
Among those HYTA participants who were sentenced to prison, tales of sexual violence and harassment are rampant. While these types of incidences are notoriously common in prisons, research indicates that young offenders are statistically much more likely to become victims of prison rape and sexual harassment. Recently, some 200 young offenders, many of whom were HYTA participants, filed a class-action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections alleging prison officials frequently turn a blind eye to and even joke about the incessant sexual violence and harassment.
For the Michigan teenagers and young adults who are forced to spend months or years in prison, many for often non-violent offenses, they emerge broken and traumatized by their experiences behind bars. Two young men who previously were sentenced to prison as part of the HYTA program at ages 15 and 16 spoke of their pain, unhealthy coping mechanisms and lack of hope for the future.
These types of stories are heartbreaking and illustrate the ineffective, unjust and often inhumane way the criminal justice system in Michigan deals with juvenile and young offenders.
Source: Mlive.com, "A program to give young offenders a second chance is sending many to prison," Ron French, April 16, 2015