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.