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Opinion | Michigan has a detention crisis. We must do better for our kids

There is so much evidence today that juvenile detention is not a rehabilitative environment for kids and, in many ways, can be harmful. Even short detention stays are associated with increased rates of depression, education delays or interruptions, and increased risk of future offending. These concerns are exacerbated when facilities fail to meet standards around health and safety.

Jason Smith is the executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a more fair and effective justice system for the state’s youth.

That’s why other intervention measures, such as expanding community alternatives to detention, should be implemented more widely within the youth justice system.

In April 2022, the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility, located in Detroit, was cited with a licensing violation for having insufficient staff to provide for residents' needs, protection, and supervision. The citation documented that youth were denied daily showers, clean clothes and bedding.

Then the staffing shortage worsened. The Detroit Free Press reported that the number of kids housed at the facility had skyrocketed 80 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels to 145 youths, while 62 percent of staff positions were unfilled.

Prior to covid, the center’s average length of stay was about three weeks; today, some youths have been there for over six months. Kids are left to languish in their rooms for hours on end, with at least one left in isolation in the center for 18 days.

Research has shown that prolonged isolation can cause significant mental and physical harm. The effects can last months or even years.

Under no circumstances should young people be housed in unsafe facilities. We must act urgently to stop inhumane conditions, prioritize the safety of youth and staff inside, and divert kids away from detention as much as possible.

During the pandemic, juvenile detention facilities achieved an unprecedented drop in admissions, plummeting 30 percent nationwide from March to May 2020. For the health and safety of youth and staff, detainment decision-makers housed only those that were absolutely necessary. This shows it can be done.

Strategies they used then that can work today include:

  • Expanding community-based alternatives to detention to serve more youth effectively and safely at home.
  • Excluding certain youth from detention. Young people who skip school or run away from home (offenses that are not crimes for adults) should never be in detention.
  • Conducting detention reviews on every case to determine who could be safely released home.
  • Capping the number of youths permitted into the facility based on appropriate staff-youth ratios. The ratios should not be based on how many positions are budgeted for the facility but on the number of live bodies who show up for work that day. If there are not enough staff, youths must go elsewhere.

Over the long term, let’s turn this crisis into an opportunity that reimagines how we can best help young people in trouble with the law. Let’s use risk assessment tools to determine if a youth is at a high risk of reoffending and disposition matrices to determine the least restrictive setting for care. Let’s develop a spectrum of detention alternatives, like restorative justice, mediation services, positive behavioral supports in schools, police- and prosecutorial diversion programs, mentoring, mental health and substance abuse services, and more.

Most importantly, let’s remember that kids are kids. We can protect public safety while still allowing youth to maintain connections with their families, schools and communities.

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