GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan’s juvenile justice system is facing a crisis amid an unprecedented wave of youth crime, according to Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker.
From an attempted carjacking at the hands of an 11-year-old to police pursuits of stolen cars with 13-year-olds at the wheel, young people are committing increasingly brazen and potentially deadly crimes.
“We’re dealing with a different kid, if you will, in terms of what they’re getting into and how many times and the type of offenses. It’s really different than it has been in the past,” said Becker, noting prosecutors are limited in how they can respond.
“I think we need more options,” Becker explained, referring to juvenile sentences. “Whether it be punitive, whether it be more treatment, or a combination, we just don’t have a whole lot of options right now, and that’s the issue.”
Among the challenges, there’s a shortage of beds statewide for juvenile offenders in need of treatment programs.
In Kent County, 28 youths who’ve already been sentenced currently await placement, according to Lori Latham, an assistant county administrator.
Becker said his office is using every tool it can to rehabilitate juvenile offenders while protecting the public from the most violent offenders.
“We are charging these juveniles,” said Becker. “I mean, it’s not a matter of us not charging. It’s just a different system. We can’t lodge juveniles like we do adults. We don’t have the bed space.”
Under Michigan law, Becker said he doesn’t have the authority either.
“Michigan law mandates, it’s part of the law, that juveniles should be held in the least restrictive means, which is generally back in the home … They’re put on probation, ordered to do community service, pay restitution,” explained Becker.
Only in the most severe crimes — like carjacking and murder — is a juvenile automatically waived to adult court.
But Becker said his office is seeking permission to waive more young offenders to adult court based on their criminal history, not the severity of their alleged crime.
In the last 16 months, since April 2022, Becker has sought 27 “traditional” waivers, which are waivers based on the offender’s record.
That’s compared to eight such requests in 2021 and 15 in 2020. For additional context, in 2017 and 2018, Becker’s office sought one waiver per year.
The juvenile crime wave is reflected in the number of cases charged too.
In 2022, Kent County authorized 1,852 juvenile cases. That’s a 51% jump over 2021, when 1,224 cases were authorized.
Among those seeking solutions is Pastor Darryl S. Gaddy Senior of Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church, which is located on Martin Luther King Jr. Street near Eastern Avenue SE.
Gaddy said he’s working with Becker and Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom to develop a community-based alternative treatment program called R.E.S.T., or Resources and Empowerment for Sustained Transformation.
Initially, the program would provide day treatment for pre-risk, at-risk and post-risk juveniles.
“When young people return (from detention), that wrap-around service is typically not there,” explained Gaddy. “Then, they fall back into recidivism. So, our goal is to provide them with support … a coaching and counseling care program, a mentoring program, a life skills component, any mental health counseling they may need.”
Gaddy said vocational training would also play a critical role in the program.
“We encourage the heart, we empower the mind, but we must engage the hands,” said Gaddy, a native of Detroit’s east side who pastored a church there for 14 years.
Gaddy, who started at Pilgrim Rest 10 months ago, also has experience in restorative justice and coaching and counseling, having worked on the National Ceasefire Initiative in Detroit.
Eventually, he envisions the program finding a home in a vacant school building, a human services building or abandoned corporate structure.
“Our goal, our dream, is to have a facility that would have a housing floor, a vocational training floor and then would have a services floor for therapy, counseling, and other services,” explained Gaddy.
If you’re interested in offering assistance, in-kind services or financial support, you can reach Pastor Gaddy at email@example.com.
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