Michigan Senate moves to keep more juveniles out of detention, lower costs
- Legislative changes would prioritize diversion, eliminate most fees in juvenile justice system
- Supporters say goal is to keep as many young people as possible out of criminal system and emphasize rehabilitation
- Effort has bipartisan support, passed Senate Thursday
Michigan lawmakers took steps to revamp the state’s juvenile justice system Thursday, passing sweeping changes that aim to keep nonviolent youth out of detention centers and shift legal costs away from minors and their families.
In a series of bipartisan votes, the Michigan Senate approved bills that would eliminate most court fees assessed in juvenile cases, require evidence-based risk and needs assessments to be completed prior to any minor’s disposition hearing, prioritize diversion programs over detention wherever possible and increase access to indigent defense options.
The package also includes a funding mechanism for local governments to leverage state funds to pay for many juvenile justice services, screening tools, treatment programs and residential placement. It would also expand the scope of the Office of Children’s Ombudsman and rename it to the Office of the Child Advocate.
The bills, which passed comfortably in the closely divided Senate, now head to the Michigan House, where similar bills are pending.
Many of the ideas stemmed from a bipartisan task force on juvenile justice commissioned by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2021. That body reviewed juvenile detention trends in Michigan and released a slate of policy recommendations for reducing the number of incarcerated adolescents.
“I think this is a step in the right direction,” Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, told reporters after the Thursday votes. “I think we still have an opportunity to provide some additional reforms.
Sen. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, said he hoped the bills would help equalize treatment of juveniles in the system regardless of what county they’re located in and give courts best practices to follow.
“By requiring courts to use validated screening and assessment tools to make data-driven decisions, we can help reduce recidivism, improve outcomes and achieve long-term savings,” he said.
A number of Senate Republicans voted against the legislation. Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, challenged the premise of the package and expressed concern that it would cause confusion for courts and victims.
“I think it will have a substantial impact on court budgets and does not allow for a lot of time to account for the changes,” Runestad said in a Senate floor speech.
The effort is backed by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who in a recent statement said the package as a whole would help focus more on rehabilitating youth and keeping them out of the criminal justice system.
“Building a support network that can offer Michigan youth the highest likelihood of finding a stable life outside of the criminal justice system is a priority of mine, and I’m grateful the legislature is addressing this need,” she said.
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