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…