Paul Elam is president of Public Policy Associates, Inc., a policy research firm in Lansing. He specializes in juvenile justice and is on the board of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.
Michigan’s juvenile justice system is ready for reform. In 2012, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder introduced his initial vision for restructuring the state's juvenile justice system. Three years later, he offered more detail, embracing effective assessment and treatment and, for most youth, diversion programs. Unfortunately, there has been no coordinated effort to turn these visions into reality.
We can’t wait any longer! Thousands of Michigan's most vulnerable youth continue to enter an outdated and unequal juvenile justice system. Services are inconsistent at best, in which a teen in one county gets the guidance and support needed to get his or her life back on track, while another youth with similar charges, but living in a different county, is removed from their home and severely punished. There are no sentencing guidelines for youth who commit crimes, and counties, relying on local revenue streams, provide varying resources and services for the juveniles under their care.
Just as concerning is that in a county-based system the state is unable to track all of the youth who are placed in detention or long-term residential placement, options that often do more harm than good. There is no one in the state who can tell us exactly how many kids are confined and for what, for how long, what treatment they received, and if the treatment was effective. This also means that no one is tracking reoffense rates, which is both a public safety issue and fiscal concern.
And, shamefully, our state is one of just five states left in the country that automatically prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, regardless of offense, even though this approach lessens the chances they will ever become productive, law-abiding citizens.
Our children deserve better.
Over the past decade, numerous statewide task forces and leaders have convened to identify the policy changes that would have the greatest positive impact.
These task forces and leaders include:
- The Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice (MCJJ)
- The Michigan Legislative Council’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission
- The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS)
- The Michigan Probate Judges Association
- The Michigan Legislature
- Nonprofits with expertise advancing public policy
They consistently identified common reforms that would significantly transform the way our system operates:
- Establish a statewide data collection system so that it is possible to track youths’ progression through the justice system, analyze decision points for equity, and track outcomes;
- Expand the use of diversion and strengthen partnerships with child welfare and behavioral health systems;
- Ensure access to quality legal representation for youth;
- Enact a statewide trauma-informed risks and needs assessment system to ensure that youth are matched to the appropriate services;
- Offer evidence-based treatment and services that are developmentally-appropriate, trauma-informed, rehabilitative in nature, and based in the community; and,
- Limit the prosecution of youth in the adult criminal justice system and prohibit the placement of anyone under 18 in adult jails and prisons.
Some counties have embraced these changes with tremendous results. In fact, over the past decade, based on federal data, we’ve seen the overall use of detention and out-of-home placement decrease in Michigan. While this progress is encouraging, our work is not done until every county has the access, knowledge and resources to adequately and equitably address the needs of all of our young people.
Here are four critical areas where we can start building out our action steps:
Policy Reform - Most of the reforms listed above will require policy changes. The Michigan Legislature has the power to pass legislation that would protect Michigan’s children by providing funding mechanisms to implement and sustain juvenile justice reform efforts.
Oversight, Monitoring and Evaluation - The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) - the state agency responsible for providing oversight and funding for juvenile justice services – should be monitoring and evaluating all public and private facilities, programs and services, and publicly reporting the aggregate outcomes for the juveniles involved. This means taking leadership over data collection and ensuring that this information is accessible, to inform additional needs for improvement.
Training and Technical Assistance - In order for courts and communities to offer the most up-to-date evidence-based practices, there must be a coordinated effort to provide quality training and technical assistance, which can be provided through the judiciary, private organizations or universities, to name a few.
Youth-Driven Advocacy - Those who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. Let’s make sure that youth and families are an integral part of policy conversations. Our state also benefits from the experience and knowledge of a number of nonprofits that work to elevate the voice of impacted communities Their expertise should be tapped to ensure that we develop an effective system based on lived experiences, research and best practices.
Our children don't have the luxury of time, and, therefore, neither do our state's leaders. Departments, associations, and organizations must embrace their leadership roles to finally create a fair and equitable juvenile justice system in Michigan. The right organizations are in place to create a juvenile justice system that is effective and equitable, but only if state leaders have the will to work together -- and take action!
It is also important that our next leaders, including candidates for governor in 2018, begin to treat juvenile justice as the vital issue that it is for our state's future. Our children can't afford for them to wait.
Editor's Note: The column has been revised since originally published.