In May, Governor Rick Snyder presented a special message to the state focused on criminal justice. In his address, the governor spoke about ways to improve support for victims, address root causes of crime, and prepare prisoners to re-enter society. The governor’s message was a call to action, urging Michigan to take genuine steps to break the cycle of crime, rather than simply enact punishments.
By holding those who commit crimes accountable, the justice system first and foremost seeks to keep the public safe. The justice system must also have a wider purpose, as the U.S. bishops advocate for addressing the needs of all impacted by crime; rehabilitating offenders; and restoring victims, their families, and the wider community (Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration, 2000).
Victims deserve the utmost respect and compassion in their search for justice and healing. Michigan must strive to keep victims informed and involved throughout the justice process. Additionally, law enforcement should take care to avoid re-victimizing the person who has already suffered as a result of crime. Last year, Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC) supported legislation that helps victims of human trafficking receive the services they need, rather than be charged for prostitution or other crimes committed as a result of being trafficked. Future legislation should be similarly victim-centered.
Another key issued discussed in Governor Snyder’s message is prisoner reintegration. According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, 90 percent of those within the state corrections system will eventually return to society. Unfortunately, when many return, they struggle to find housing and jobs because of their record. Some also struggle with a lack of adequate education and job skills, barriers to transportation, substance abuse, or mental health issues. Faced with these obstacles, it becomes easier for former offenders to return to crime. Currently the recidivism rate, or rate of individuals who reoffend within three years after leaving prison, is 29 percent (Department of Corrections).
Finally, Michigan must take significant steps to address the treatment of juvenile offenders. “Tough on crime” laws enacted in the 1990s have funneled youth into an adult system that is ill-equipped to work effectively with them. Between 2003 and 2013, over 20,000 Michigan youth were placed on adult probation, detained in jail, or imprisoned for a crime committed when they were younger than 18 years old. Most of these cases included non-violent offenses, and a disproportionate number were minority youths. In adult facilities, these juveniles face extreme risk of violence, sexual assault, and self-harm. Many are unable to receive the rehabilitation services they need and find themselves in a revolving door to prison. Removing youth from adult jails and prisons, raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, and establishing effective reentry and support services are a few of the ways we can improve the current system.
The faith community has a large role to play in these tasks, offering comfort to victims and their families, as well as encouragement to offenders who are working to turn their lives around. Catholic prison ministry offers spiritual support to individuals in prison, while other programs offered by Catholic agencies provide services like job training, counseling, and funding for housing and transportation once they have been released. The faith community has also provided alternatives to crime through youth outreach and mentoring programs.
Is Michigan meeting the needs of victims, whose suffering is real and painful? Are individuals and institutions helping former offenders reintegrate into the community? Is our society seeking to address the root causes of crime in a meaningful way, such as poverty, mental health, and substance abuse? Or are we simply placing offenders in prison and letting them serve out their sentences?
The governor’s message on criminal justice provides the opportunity to enter into conversation about how best to address issues of criminal justice. Michigan can do better, and must do so in order to break the cycle of crime.
To learn more about foster care in Michigan and ways you can be a part of the solution for the state’s most vulnerable children, visit www.michigan.gov/hopeforahome.