by Adam Lynch
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for a commission to decrease adolescent presence in Michigan’s justice system after a controversial arrest and budget issues.
The state of Michigan made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2020 after it detained a 15-year-old Black student for failing to complete her online schoolwork. Authorities had previously put the troubled youth on probation after charging her with assault and theft, but then detained her in a juvenile facility for more than a month because neglecting to submit remote learning during the COVID pandemic violated the conditions of her parole.
State and county justice systems are a mechanical process of action and reaction, and arrest can be a predictable outcome of a parole violation in such a system. But parents and youth advocates say a soulless mechanical process should not be deciding the fate of children.
News sources claim the confidentiality of juvenile court cases makes it impossible to determine how often kids get detained for seemingly innocuous reasons in Michigan, but the story of the detained 15-year-old school-dodger posed such a glaring example state Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created a Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform last year in response. The task force’s chief goal was to collect and analyze data and identify why Michigan’s justice system targets and incarcerates young people for noncriminal offenses. The Council of State Governments headed the task force, along with Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, assorted judges, court officials and family members of teens impacted by the system.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for a task force to decrease the juvenile presence in Michigan’s justice system after a controversial arrest and budget issues.
Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist
Last month, the task force released a report with 32 recommendations designed to curtail the use of courts and institutionalization for youth involved in low-level offenses, and to decrease the amount of time youth spend in out-of-home placements.
Firstly, the report aims to reduce poverty for families of children caught up in the justice system by eliminating many fines and fees charged by juvenile courts. These measures come at a time when a Michigan Center for Youth Justice (MCYJ) study discovered that upper east side Detroit’s Macomb County “assessed $11.7 million in fees and fines (excluding restitution) to families with youth in their juvenile court” between 2017 and 2019. The MCYJ describes these fees as “inconsistently imposed (and) fiscally ineffective,” and claims they “exacerbate poverty for indigent families, and disproportionately impact families of color.”
“For a family that already struggles to pay the bills, even a smaller legal-system debt can be devastating. These debts disproportionately fall on Black families and low-income families. And these debts can stress a family’s finances for years,” wrote Michigan Rep. Kara Hope, D-Holt.
Beyond money problems, the task force recommends increased oversight of residential facilities and halfway houses, and a stronger reliance upon pre-court diversion programs and preventive efforts for identifying and counseling at-risk youth. Programs like these include screening and assessment procedures, education and tutorial services, substance use education and counseling, job skills training, crisis intervention, family counseling and mental health treatment, and support coaching for rebuilding family relationships, among many other preventive services.
These are the kinds of programs that should have been maximized and relied upon from the beginning, says advocates, long before states began relying on institutionalization.
“We’ve been advocating for (these programs) for 60 years now,” said Husain Haidri, Community Outreach and Engagement manager for youth advocacy group the Michigan Center for Youth Justice. “I just don’t know what the problem was.”
But states took a different direction. Throughout the 1990s, Michigan—along with Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and a host of other states—joined the national “tough on crime” trend. They even extended it to children. States passed a series of harsh laws that funneled thousands of youth into a criminal justice system unquestionably designed for adults.
Using information from state court caseload reports and Dept. of Correction information, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency reported their own state saddled more than 20,000 Michigan youth with adult-style probation, jail detention and imprisonment. Some of the victims were as young as 10 years old, and they were disproportionately youth of color. And most of these cases involved non-violent offenses.
The report goes on to explain that Michigan’s detention system, like that of many states, is not designed to rehabilitate or help the unique brand of youth caught in it. Most of the children landing in court have not passed 11th grade and are typically in need of positive attention, tutoring and education (in its many forms). Many require drug or alcohol rehabilitation, or medication and therapy for mental illness. Many girls in the system have a history of violence and sexual victimization, and the system has few services for these vulnerable survivors. It comes as no surprise, then, that young people leaving an adult-styled system without adequate services often see the system again as adults.
Liz Ryan, founder of Youth First Initiative and the Campaign for Youth Justice, said roughly “10 percent of youth in these kinds of facilities are subjected to sexual violence,” and that the system is woefully racist, incarcerating youth of color at rates 24 times higher than that of white youth, despite both racial groups committing roughly the same levels of offenses.
Ryan urged states to “abandon the youth prison model” entirely.
“We’re putting young people in harm’s way by placing them in these facilities. […] We need to be closing these facilities, taking the resources from these facilities—because we’re talking billions of dollars here—and reinvesting those dollars in more effective programs that work,” she said in an interview with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In May 2022, President Joe Biden appointed Ryan head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). She will likely press for efforts to reduce dependency on incarceration-style systems for youth on the national level while states like Michigan come to terms with their own mistakes.