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Opinion | Michigan needs a statewide approach to reform juvenile justice

Michigan does not have a single juvenile justice system; it has many. Every community is different, and localities should be able to tailor services to fit youth’s needs. But for too long, Michigan has accepted the disparity in services that lead to inconsistent outcomes for youth.

two headshots
Thom Lattig is president of the Michigan Association for Family Court Administration and juvenile court director at 20th Circuit Court. Jason Smith is the executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing equitable youth justice policies and practices. They were members of a state task force on juvenile justice reform. (Courtesy photos)

Differences in the level and quality of supervision and services can unnecessarily push the most vulnerable adolescents — often youth of color — deeper into the justice system. At the same time, youth who are a risk to public safety don’t consistently receive the services they need to reduce reoffending and set them up for success.

In the summer of 2021, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established a statewide, bipartisan Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform. We were honored to be appointed as two of its members. The task force was charged with conducting a comprehensive assessment of juvenile justice practices across the state and identifying opportunities to better protect public safety, reduce disparities and improve youth outcomes.

The task force assessment highlighted many best practices being implemented throughout Michigan. But it also demonstrated the lack of a statewide vision and sporadic implementation of research-based policies and programs.

The Child Care Fund (CCF), the primary state funding vehicle for juvenile justice, does not allow counties to leverage these dollars to support diversion for low-risk youth. Instead, this money is often used for detention and out-of-home placement in lieu of more cost-effective community-based options that yield better outcomes for youth.

And there is an absence of statewide data about how the system operates and whether it’s effective.

The lack of a statewide approach is pushing our out-of-home placement system to a breaking point. Michigan, like many states, is experiencing a staffing crisis in our public agencies and with our residential and community service providers. As a result, there is increasing overcrowding and safety concerns in our facilities, as well as major gaps in the availability of behavioral health and other services in our communities.

Last summer, the task Force issued its final report, which details 32 consensus-based recommendations for transforming our juvenile justice system, 31 of which were adopted unanimously. These recommendations serve as a blueprint for retaining local discretion while establishing a statewide framework for implementing policies and practices that work.

Key policies include the required use of screening and assessment tools to support objective, data-driven decisions; expanding diversion opportunities; creating incentives so the CCF is used primarily for evidence-based, community-based programs; eliminating most fines and fees; and creating a statewide juvenile defense infrastructure.

Many of these recommendations have been translated into statutory reforms that will be taken up by the legislature this session. This is an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that research and data guide critical decisions on how best to protect public safety and improve youth outcomes.

 This legislation is supported by a bipartisan coalition of state and local leaders, associations, community advocates, service providers and juvenile justice-involved youth and families. We urge state lawmakers to take the work of the task force to the finish line and pass this comprehensive package of statewide system improvements this session.

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