Opinion | Girl locked up over homework reveals MI’s juvenile court problems

Readers across Michigan and the nation have been outraged by the heartbreaking story of Grace and Charisse, told in a remarkable piece of reporting by ProPublica and published by Bridge Michigan and the Detroit Free Press. Like the cell phone video that not only captured the brutal murder of George Floyd but also laid bare the systemic racism and violence of American policing, Grace’s experience exposes not one unjust incident, but deep injustices in Michigan’s juvenile legal system.

Mary Ann Scali is executive director of the National Juvenile Defender Center

Grace’s story is egregious, but it is not wholly unique. Every day, youth across Michigan — disparately Black youth and other youth of color—face the same overreach of a juvenile legal system that exercises its authority without adequate consideration of children’s constitutional rights.

 Last month, the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) released an assessment of Michigan’s juvenile delinquency defense system. For more than a year, juvenile defense experts from across the country analyzed Michigan’s juvenile defense and court systems. What they found gives context to Grace’s mistreatment and provides a roadmap to ensure young people’s rights are upheld when they face prosecution in Michigan delinquency courts.

NJDC’s assessment found that Michigan’s county-based juvenile defense system does not meet the state’s constitutional obligation to provide defense counsel to young people. Today, Michigan provides no state funding to support juvenile defense services and has no state-level juvenile defense standards, system of oversight, or enforcement mechanisms to ensure that county-based juvenile defense systems provide effective, constitutionally required defender services.

The absence of state funding and oversight has perpetuated local juvenile defense systems in which attorneys frequently lack the skills, training, resources, and time necessary to provide the quality of defense youth need and deserve. As a result, young people’s constitutional rights are often inadequately protected, their voices are not heard, and they and their families are left to navigate the complex legal system without an effective advocate.

In the juvenile court system, defense attorneys are first responders for youth rights. They must insist upon the fairness of the proceedings, ensure the child’s voice is heard throughout every stage of the process, and safeguard the due process and equal protection rights of every youth. And in a state such as Michigan, with vast disparities in the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of Black youth and other youth of color, the system of juvenile defense must be strong enough to counter racially disparate treatment.

All youth should be afforded the kind of lawyer you would want for your child or loved one. Grace should have been represented by a skilled, specialized juvenile defender with the training and resources necessary to protect Grace’s rights, assert an effective defense, and advocate for Grace’s interests in successfully reengaging in school and remaining at home with her mother.

Michigan is implementing sweeping reforms to its adult criminal defense system. The state legislature has invested significant funding in a new state system built to create and enforce standards for criminal defense. But Michigan’s system of providing defense counsel to youth facing delinquency charges has been specifically excluded from these reforms.

Online demands to #FreeGrace are right: Grace should be at home with her mother. But there are countless other youth entangled in Michigan’s juvenile legal system whose names we do not know. Michigan must act now to ensure their rights and futures are protected by transforming its system of juvenile defense.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thomas Gratch
Tue, 07/28/2020 - 3:18pm

My experience exactly in Oakland and Wayne County. I encountered so many kids/families (especially families of color and economically marginalized families) get mired in the system more for failure to successfully complete probation than for whatever their initial charge is. The referees and judges regularly act as if their decisions are individualized and in the best interest of the juvenile while their rulings seem misinformed and driven by their own personal ego. Anytime I had a client with a charge of "incorrigibility" I would find that the juvenile's case would have been better served through a non-judicial process. Often, that juvenile's legal determination made with the prosecution working hand-in-glove with the court appointed counsel. Grace is just the case we are hearing about.

Thu, 07/30/2020 - 2:17am

You lost me at, systemic racism of American policing.