Raise the Age summit sheds light on Michigan’s tough juvenile justice laws

EAST LANSING, MI (WLNS) – Michigan is one of five states that automatically allows 17 year-olds to be tried and sentenced as adults.

An effort, called Raise The Age in Michigan is working to showcase some of the pitfalls of that system and details why it says 17 year-old offenders should be tried as minors.

Being 18 years-old in the State of Michigan means you can vote in a general election, buy cigarettes or join the military; privileges our state says only adults can do.

But if you break the law and you’re under the age of 18, you will be treated as an adult in the criminal justice system, no matter what the crime.

It’s part of the law that became a reality for Hakim Crampton and Phillip Lippert, who were both 17 years-old when they were arrested, tried and sentenced as adults for a crime they didn’t commit.

During Wednesday night’s Raise the Age event at the Hannah Community Center in East Lansing, they both shared their stories about how our state’s juvenile justice system has created a burden in their lives and they deal with it to this day.

“There’s not been a single day or a single moment of my life that I have not lived outside the criminal justice system,” Crampton said. “For a person like myself that’s been out now 11 years still on parole, still living under restrictions, unable to prove my worth that I’m worth it being free, has been such a great complication in my own life and the lives of other people that still continue to have to deal with the system after the incarceration process, after having paid the price so to speak for the crimes that you were convicted of.”

“A lot of our problem goes back to what’s referred to as the “dark years” in the system where the Engler and Blanchard administrations when people were convinced that we needed a prison complex in every county,” Lippert said. “And now that they have all those prisons, it’s important to keep them full because that’s jobs, that’s the economic backbone.”

Nearly 16 days after being arrested at 17, Lippert said he found himself in the Jackson prison facing a life sentence without the possibility of bond.

Lippert said at the same time, he had a co-defendant who was in jail for first degree murder and was released on a PR bond.

“Both of us were dealt with an extraordinary fashion because there were some people in Michigan politics who had enough power to make that happen because they did not want this story told in court,” Lippert said. “I subsequently spent over 40 years in prison in Michigan, even though I never in my life committed an act of violence, I had never been accused or suspected of violence.”

The group of panelists, including Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth, Criminal Defense Attorney, Brian Watkins, and Ingham County Juvenile Court Officer Nicholas Hefty, shared their thoughts about raising the age when it comes to juvenile justice.

They also weighed in about legislation that’s pending in the Michigan House, which would raise the age of legal adulthood in the court system and treat 17year-olds as minors. As well as give teens access to a diversion program or counseling

“In my opinion, it’s the right thing to do to raise the age to 18,” Sheriff Wriggelsworth said. “It’s very, very problematic to house these kids in our facility and in my opinion it really does them no good.”

“When you bring people into the juvenile justice system, the earlier the deeper you bring them into the system, the more it actually leads to recidivism,” Prosecutor Siemon said. “So while we do have to have a response that’s appropriate and proportionate to protect victims of crimes and to get appropriate treatment and rehabilitation, the consequences of what we have done really has led to a system that unfortunately, is in some ways on the par with Somalia and North Korea and others.”

Brian Watkins talked about his experience dealing with the juvenile justice system as a criminal defense attorney.

“One of the things that astonished me the most when I began taking on juvenile cases and there was a bit of a barrier, the statutes read differently, it’s a bit of its own language, but was just how much can be prevented by helping children meet their basic daily needs,” Watkins said. “Children who have three meals a day aren’t going to get in as much trouble.”

Nicholas Hefty, who works as a juvenile court officer said if the piece of legislation currently in the House, passes without any appropriations attached to it, it could have adverse effects.

“There needs to be money appropriated up front to build up the infrastructure of the juvenile court,” he said. “Potentially more court officers, a bigger youth center to house these people.”

According to a fact sheet put together by Raise the Age Michigan, putting youth behind bars in adult facilities actually increases violent crime and national research has found that when teens leave the adult criminal justice system, 34 percent of them are more likely to re-offend.

Research also shows, coming up with an alternative to incarcerating youth not only reduces crime, but also saves money. It can cost up to $65,000 per year to put young people in juvenile detention facilities.

Crampton said he wants to help others who may find themselves in the same position he found himself in.

“I want to be a shoulder that they can step on if they walk over that crack because I’ve unfortunately already suffered the consequences of making bad decisions as a youth and the pain and torture that i’ve felt, I don’t want the kids to continue to feel that so, if I have to continue to be that bridge between incarceration and freedom, then I’m going to have to stand and hold the hand of our kids,” he said.

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