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Opinion | There’s more work to be done for youth justice in Michigan

On the eve of a new law taking effect that raises the age that youth can be charged as adults from 17 to 18, and in observation of Youth Justice Action Month (October), we challenge Michiganders, including elected officials and those who work within our criminal justice system, to become trailblazers in youth justice reform.

Jason Smith
Jason Smith is the executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice in Ann Arbor. For more information, visit (Courtesy photo)

The collaborative, bipartisan effort that saw passage of an 18-bill package to end the automatic charging of 17-year-olds as adults (signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2019) shows that we can unite to transition from antiquated “tough-on-crime” approaches that have too often emphasized punishment over rehabilitation.

Before the Raise the Age legislation passed, Michigan was one of only four states that still treated all 17-year-olds as adults. Now, thanks in part to the support of juvenile court judges, administrators, probation staff and treatment providers who specialize in serving this population, 17-year-olds — most of them juniors and seniors in high school — will receive treatment appropriate to their age and stage of development. This important reform will also increase public safety and reduce criminal justice costs, as more young people are provided the resources they need to address and then move on from their past mistakes, allowing them to transition successfully into adulthood.

There’s reason to believe that individuals in our state are ready to build on this thoughtful approach:

A recent survey found that 58 percent of Michigan residents support more investment in our children, even if it raises taxes; 82 percent support programs that reduce the number of youth in the criminal justice system. The survey of 800 likely voters was conducted July 27-August 3 by The Skillman Foundation, Michigan’s Children and Lake Research Partners.

It’s clear that our elected officials are willing to prioritize youth justice reform. Not only has Gov. Whitmer created a juvenile justice task force, but the Legislature last fall put into law measures that make it easier to have a juvenile record expunged.

These important first steps shouldn’t preclude us from further innovation, as there is still significant work to do when it comes to ensuring that youth who come in contact with the justice system are treated fairly and effectively, no matter where in Michigan they live. Youth of color, LGBT-identified youth and those with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the system, and are often saddled with juvenile court debt after their cases are closed. The quality of juvenile defense representation varies county by county. Harsh school discipline policies can reduce academic success and increase the likelihood of justice system involvement. While facts should inform policy decisions, Michigan lacks consistent and transparent youth justice system data, making it difficult to answer basic questions such as the number of kids housed in detention facilities statewide.

It’s critical that we undertake additional measures to ensure the best outcomes possible for our youth:

  • Eliminating “zero tolerance” policies in schools and ensuring access to education during suspensions;
  • No longer imposing fines and fees for a youth’s court interaction;
  • Expanding community-based services, and
  • Properly investing in a statewide system for the collection and analysis of juvenile justice data.

With the support of Michiganders and the recent passage of laws that advance our system to one that’s more redemptive than punitive, these are not insurmountable reforms to enact. Press your school to implement restorative practices to address school-based behavior issues. Ask your elected representative to support bills eliminating fines and fees. Support state and community investments aimed at expanding alternatives to detention.

As Jeremy Travis, a 30-year leader in justice reform, recently noted:

“Ultimately, we need to have a response that promotes individual and community well-being. We’ve gone so far off course. We are now in a period of fundamental course correction where we have to recognize the harm that we’ve done and undo many of the policies that have promoted this era of punitive excess.”

We must continue our work to transform the Michigan youth justice system. Because kids who get in trouble are still kids.

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