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Michigan House members introduced a package of 20 bills in May intended to amend Michigan’s juvenile justice system. This package was then presented to the Michigan legislature last month. The bills are the result of work done by the Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform, formed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2021, after staff members at a juvenile detention center in Kalamazoo assaulted and killed a 16-year-old.

The bills include statewide reforms such as using evidence-based risk assessments when deciding whether to detain youth as well as an elimination of most fees and fines associated with the system and funding incentives that would encourage county courts to use community-based treatments rather than detention. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced her support for the package of bills in a Sept. 20 press release, saying she believes juvenile court cases should prioritize the well-being of involved youth.

“As prosecutors, when tackling the fate of juvenile offenders, the priority should most often focus on rehabilitation, and this package of bills will set the State on the right path to support that effort,” Nessel said. “Building a support network that can offer Michigan youth the highest likelihood of finding a stable life outside of the criminal justice system is a priority of mine, and I’m grateful the legislature is addressing this need.” 

Kimberly Thomas, a member of Whitmer’s task force and director of U-M Juvenile Justice Clinic, said the task force investigated issues with the current juvenile system, including a lack of statewide consistency in judgements.

“I think it became clearer what some of the big problems were,” Thomas said. “There was a real lack of statewide structure. There’s a real lack of standards. There’s a lot of sort of justice by geography, so depending on where you lived, the system was very different and looked very different and came to different results.”

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Jason Smith, director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, said while individual counties in the state have different strengths and weaknesses, he sees the inconsistencies between courts in different areas as one of the biggest systemic issues statewide.

“I think that one of the largest issues that we’ve seen in Michigan’s juvenile justice system is the concept of justice by geography,” Smith said. “Michigan’s juvenile justice system is county-based, so a lot of the decisions around how the local juvenile justice system at the local county or court level operates … really can vary county by county. A young person’s experience in the juvenile justice system can really vary depending on where they live.”

According to Thomas, a challenge the task force faced while evaluating the system was a lack of consistent data reporting across counties, making it harder to properly assess issues, though a non-profit organization called Council of State Governments tried to help ensure the group had access to the most complete data possible.

“The task force really benefited from the nonprofit called Council of State Governments because they had data people who went and got more information than we’ve had from a bunch of different county courts,” Thomas said. “Our county courts have individual data, which is kept in more or less inconsistent ways, and so they were able to really get a better snapshot on what’s happening statewide than had previously been available.”

The bills propose using evidence-based assessments to determine whether juvenile criminals should be detained, or if at-home, community-based interventions would be a better alternative. According to Thomas, unnecessarily putting youth through the juvenile justice system can be harmful to their future and may increase the chance that they will be a repeat offender in the future.

“If they’re low risk, we really should divert them because the research shows that basically, not entering them in the juvenile court system is better for them than entering them into the juvenile court system,” Thomas said. “It actually increases their chance of recidivating to be in the formal court system.”

The bills also propose using state funding to incentivize community-based interventions. In Michigan, the Child Care Fund is the primary statewide source of funding for costs related to the juvenile justice system. Smith explained that in the current system, local counties cover costs — including those related to treatment, probation and detention — upfront, and the CCF later reimburses them for 50% of their spending. In the plan outlined in the new bills, the CCF would reimburse counties for 75% of costs related to community-based solutions that keep youth in their homes rather than send them to detention centers. Smith said the bill offers both economic and social incentives for the state.

“It’s cheaper for the state to reimburse community-based care at 75% than out-of-home (care) at 50% and (it) also yields better outcomes,” Smith said. “It allows out-of-home placements, long-term residential care and even detention beds to be saved and utilized only for kids who really need it. So it ultimately improves the quality of care that those kids get, too.”

Currently, youth need to be formally charged with a crime in order for counties to be able to use CCF funding to provide services for them. Under the new bills, CCF dollars could be used before any charges are pressed.

Smith said this change means families who are worried their child may become involved in the juvenile court system, can access support services before youth are arrested.

“We’ve heard time and time again from families who’ve said that they’ve been given the advice to just ‘get your kid involved with the juvenile justice system, no matter the charge because he or she (or) they will finally get the services that they need,’” Smith said. “The hope is to allow young people to access similar services to address their needs without having to be involved with the formal legal system.”

Patrick Pullis, co-president of the University’s Undergraduate Political Science Association and president of Michigan Political Consulting, wrote in an email to The Daily that he thinks the bills are necessary improvements to the current juvenile court system, but he hopes to see legislation that would prevent juvenile crimes from happening in the first place.

“Specifically when it comes to HB 4633/SB 0427, I think these bills would do a lot to get children in the juvenile justice system the mental health care that they require,” Pullis wrote. “However, I do think it’s important to note what’s not covered in these bills. I think it would’ve been valuable to consider a bill that establishes some sort of program aimed at crime prevention.”

The proposed changes have the potential to reform many areas of the juvenile court system, Thomas said, emphasizing all of the research that went into the recommendations included in the bills to ensure that they would have a positive impact. 

“I think that it’s important to understand that there was a lot of work put into the recommendations in the bills already,” Thomas said. “It’s not like somebody just made them up and didn’t have data to back them up and didn’t have support for them. I think that they’re really thought-through.”

Daily Staff Reporter Abigail VanderMolen can be reached at vabigail@umich.edu.