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Juvenile Justice Reform on the Agenda in Michigan after Teen Sent to Prison for Not Doing Online Homework

by Jo Ellen Nott

On July 29, 2022 a Michigan task force presented its findings and made 32 recommendations to keep young people out of detention facilities, provide them with better legal representation, and offer them more family counseling and mental health treatment.  A key recommendation would eliminate most fines and fees charged by juvenile courts.  

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) created the Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform in June 2021 to understand why Michigan incarcerates so many young people for noncriminal offenses—and offer ways to reduce the number. A series of ProPublica stories about a teenager who was incarcerated for not doing her online schoolwork was the catalyst for creating the task force.

Many of the recommendations require changes in state law and additional funding. Task force member Sarah Lightner, a Republican representative, introduced two bills the first week of August 2022 designed to ensure young people have access to attorneys trained in juvenile justice.  Michigan has no state standards in place nor specialized training for lawyers representing young offenders nor state funding for juvenile defense.

Michigan aggregates limited data from its local courts, and those data are not collected in a standardized format.  The lack of data makes it difficult for the state to assess its juvenile justice system in any meaningful way.  The data available to the task force came from only 32 of Michigan’s 83 counties.  Those data showed that about 23% of cases referred to courts are for noncriminal offenses, including truancy, running away, and incorrigibility.  Another 26% of cases were for low-level misdemeanor offenses.  Nearly 12% involved children 12 and under. 

After finding that Black youth are detained at six times the rate of white youth and the average age of juveniles kept in the most restrictive form of juvenile confinement was 14, the task force recommended that Michigan collect and share data from local courts.  This information would be used to track and measure disparities in the justice system. 

Other key recommendations from the task force:

  • State juvenile courts only see children 13 and up
  • Divert low risk offenders to community programs
  • Reimburse 75% of the cost for family counseling, mental health support and substance abuse treatment
  • Develop standardized assessments to match youth with the level of supervision they need
  • Establish an advisory group of young people and families to help guide the justice system’s decisions

Source: Forensic on the Scene and in the Lab via ProPublica

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