Michigan's Juvenile Justice System is getting a much-needed overhaul

Posted at 6:22 PM, Dec 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-13 18:29:41-05

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WXYZ) — A new raft of legislation was signed into law Tuesday that reforms the Juvenile Justice System in Michigan.

“When the bills were signed, I think I dropped a tear or two. And today, I just…I’m like…this is big!” said Cole Williams, Executive Director of the Delta Project.

Cole Williams watched Tuesday as Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist signed the new legislation into law. Williams is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Delta Project which works to tell the stories of students caught in the cycle of incarceration.

He says he got involved in reforming the juvenile justice system when his own son, who was suffering from mental health issues, was caught up in it.

“I contacted the police with the understanding that they would come and just de-escalate the situation. But what they ultimately arrested him and took him to the detention center,” said Williams.

He says the changes now law are the result of groups from all over Michigan coming together to change the system.

“Prosecuting Attorneys, Democrats, Republicans, there were everybody at the table,” said Jason Smith, Executive Director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice. “You rarely have all of these people coming together with a shared view or a shared vision of how we could reimagine a system that we know is failing youth and families.

Jason Smith, the Executive Director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice helped me understand the changes.

“These reforms help create baseline standards of care and decision-making processes for the [Clean up] juvenile justice system statewide,” said Smith.

He explained that people living in different zip codes have often received drastically different care in Michigan.

WXYZ’s Mike Duffy asked, “Is it fair to call it an overhaul of the juvenile justice system?”

“I think so. One of the key components of the legislation was to change the state childcare fund. So, the largest funding structure for the juvenile justice system is a reimbursement model,” said Smith. “The new legislation would increase that reimbursement rate from the state from 50% to 75% for community-based care options.”

He says this will allow youth to receive care in their homes and stay in school which leads to better outcomes.

Smith says another win is…

“Legislation that would eliminate the assessment and collection of juvenile court fines and fees. Eliminating fines and fees allows all parties to focus on treatment instead of the financial harms that comes with assessing huge juvenile court debt to families," said Smith.

Most of the legislation is the manifestation of recommendations made by the Michigan Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform which both Smith and Williams were a part of.

“The state of Michigan should be proud of what we just accomplished. I think that these historic reforms, researchers for years to come will be analyzing Michigan’s juvenile justice system before and after these changes.”

“Even though my son didn’t get a chance to feel the outcome of this, my hope is that there will never be another son like mine who will never have to experience the juvenile justice system in the way that he did and the way that so many other children did…before these bills were signed,” said Williams.