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Whitmer launches bipartisan group to reform Michigan juvenile justice

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Michigan is looking to reform its juvenile justice system, which routinely incarcerates teens for noncriminal offenses.

LANSING—Calling Michigan’s current juvenile justice system a failure for at-risk youth, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday launched a task force to study ways to reform a system she said has incarcerated too many young people.

The Task Force on Juvenile Justice, in collaboration with the nonprofit Council of State Governments, will study the data surrounding juvenile detention in Michigan and develop policy recommendations by July 2022 for how the state can reduce the number of incarcerated adolescents.

“We believe that we must reduce people’s contact with the system in the first place, but when they do come into contact, we must especially treat our youngest Michiganders with dignity, humanity, and respect,” Whitmer said. “We cannot allow an early mistake to define the rest of the child's life, especially if it's a nonviolent offense.”


The creation of the panel comes after a ProPublica investigation (also published in Bridge Michigan) last year uncovered systemic flaws in the state’s decentralized juvenile justice system, including such poor data that the state can’t say how many juveniles it has in custody at any given time or why they have been detained.

ProPublica's analysis of federal government data from a single day in 2017 found 30 percent of juveniles incarcerated in Michigan were detained for noncriminal offenses, almost double the national rate of 17 percent. The analysis also found Michigan was ranked fourth in the nation – behind only the more populous states of California, Texas, and Florida — in the number of minors detained for technical, noncriminal offenses.

One teen caught in that system was profiled in a series of ProPublica articles last year, which revealed a 15-year-old Oakland County girl was detained at a secure facility in May 2020 for not doing her online homework — a technical probation violation.

The reporting about the teenager identified as Grace, her middle name, prompted protests and a grassroots social media campaign calling for her release, as well as calls by members of Congress for a civil rights investigation. The Michigan Court of Appeals ordered Grace’s release less than three weeks later, overriding a lower court judge’s ruling that she stay in a residential facility.

Lt. Gov Garlin Gilchrist, who joined Whitmer at the press conference Wednesday and will be a member of the task force, highlighted Grace’s case, calling it “a complete and systemic failure of our juvenile justice system.”

“Grace and her mother deserved resources that should have wrapped around them and supported them rather than putting this little girl away. Simply put, incarceration was the wrong response.”

Grace’s mother, Charisse, called the news of the task force “encouraging” and said she hopes it examines the state’s probation policies, racial disparities and the quality of court-appointed attorneys, among other issues.

“This should mean that youth currently in the system and all future children who are impacted by the justice system won’t fall under the same system of injustice,” she said. She also said the panel should include parents and individuals who “look like and understand today’s youth.”

The task force will engage with stakeholders affected by the juvenile justice system and will convene law enforcement, judges, advocates and juvenile defense experts at the state and county-level to better understand the factors leading to juvenile detention and how young offenders are treated by the state.

“By working together, we can eliminate juvenile justice, keep kids out of detention and shut down the school to prison pipeline,” said Beth Clement, a Michigan Supreme Court Justice who attended the announcement Wednesday. “We know we can do better, and Michigan's judiciary is ready to work with this task force so that we can reimagine our juvenile justice system and make a positive difference in the lives of more youth.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, Rep. Sarah Lightner, R-Springport, and Sen. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, attended the announcement. Citing her experience as a paralegal and an appointee to former Gov. Rick Snyder’s commission studying criminal justice, Lightner emphasized the task force should understand the barriers that bring juveniles into the detention system, including financial obstacles and lack of legal counsel.

“We must make sure that our kids are afforded the due process in their legal proceedings, and that they understand the consequences of their actions,” Lightner said. “We have to make smart investments in our justice system and collaborate with our community partners to get kids on the right track so they can overcome their challenges and be productive, successful members of society.”

Whitmer appointed a similar bipartisan task force focused on the adult criminal justice system soon after she took office in January 2019. That group, which analyzed a decade of jail and court data, found that about half of all jail admissions resulted from probation or parole violations.

Those findings led to new laws this January that limit when jail can be used for adult probation violations and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases.

The state previously passed bipartisan legislation in 2020 that prevents 17-year-olds committing criminal offenses from automatically being tried as adults and raises the age where adolescents can be tried as adults to 18. 

Juvenile detention has left lasting scars for some inmates. In February last year, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel signed a $80 million settlement between the state and inmates alleging they were abused and raped by adult prisoners while incarcerated as juveniles in adult prisons.

Michigan’s prisons no longer allow juveniles and adults to be detained in the same space, but in the settlement, the state did not admit to liability, stating the Department of Corrections was unable to confirm the allegations of abuse.

Jason Smith, executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, said that, for years, officials and advocates have been discussing appointing a group to address “long-standing issues” in the juvenile justice system. But he said that Grace’s case, as well as the death of 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks after he was restrained in a residential facility, “placed a national spotlight on Michigan that served as motivation for state leaders to finally act.”

“Michigan's kids can't wait any longer for these improvements to the juvenile justice system,” Smith said. “I hope that the outcome of the task force's work ensures that no Michigan child youth experiences harm due to their justice system involvement in the future.”

Jodi Cohen of Propublica contributed to this report 

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