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In 2023, a bipartisan legislative bill package was signed into law to achieve a number of the recommendations set forth by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s task force on juvenile justice reform.
The bills include crucial updates to the Child Care Fund, Michigan’s state and local youth justice cost-sharing mechanism. With the 2023 bill, the Child Care Fund will reimburse counties 75%—25% more than in previous years—for delivering community-based services delivered to justice-involved youth. Eligible services include case management, behavioral health support, educational support, and more.
“This policy will help Washtenaw County implement a more upstream model,” says Lisa Gentz, program administrator for millage initiatives. “In the prior model, a youth had to be charged to access services. But with this change, we will be able to offer preventative, community-based services for youth not formally charged.”
This change will not only expand service eligibility to youth who have not been charged with an offense and community-based care but will also save Washtenaw County money, enabling the county to either expand youth services or allocate more resources to other community needs.
In recent years, two groups have formed to address youth needs in Washtenaw County including mental health supports, substance use recovery services, school support, and violence prevention.
In 2019, local leaders representing various youth service organizations convened to identify strategies that would prevent youth with mental health and substance use conditions from becoming entangled in the juvenile justice system
The group identified several priority needs. Among them was the need to develop a “first contact” youth assessment program. This program, nationally referred to as a Youth or Juvenile Assessment Center, would serve as a 24/7 location where youth who have been arrested and “at risk” youth, like youth on academic probation can be dropped off to receive comprehensive screenings for social needs and referrals to local resources.
In a recent Voices of Youth article—a journalistic program funded by the millage that features content created by Washtenaw County youth—Lucinda Printup, a justice-involved youth, says:
"Instead of just automatically trying to put a juvenile on probation, talk to them," she says. "Ask them, 'Why did this happen? What caused you to act like you acted? What led up to the things that happened? What can we do to make sure that this doesn't happen again?'"
In Washtenaw, an assessment center could meet Printup’s suggestions and more.
To identify ways to implement a center, a Youth Assessment Planning Committee was formed. With a contribution from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage Advisory Committee, the group began to receive support from the National Assessment Center (NAC), a group that helps entities implement assessment centers.
As of April 2023, the Planning Committee engaged the community in four conversations, gathering insights from educators, youth-serving nonprofits, the Community Violence Intervention Team, and youth aged 12-17. This feedback, coupled with data from local sources, informed a set of recommendations for the implementation of a youth assessment center.
Lisa Gentz, program administrator for millage initiatives and a member of the Planning Committee, says the recommendations “focused on operation, oversight, target population, location, tier of care, and staffing.” For example, the planning group identified that “it is important to the community for the center to be staffed by people with lived experience and to be a welcoming, neutral space for youths and their families.”
Simultaneously, another group, the Washtenaw Equity Partnership, was formed. With backing from the Michigan Justice Fund, the WEP partnership of youth leaders, youth justice leaders, and community members worked with the Vera Institute of Justice “to develop a transparent, coordinated, evidence-based community plan for identifying and addressing racial disparities across all components of the Washtenaw County juvenile and adult criminal legal systems.”
In the spring of 2023, after a period of qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis, the WEP released a recommendation report. The group conducted interviews, focus groups, and reviewed publicly available data from sources such as the Washtenaw County Trial Courts.
The report includes five recommendations:
These local and state advancements share the goal of reforming the youth justice system through prevention and early intervention. But despite these parallel efforts, the challenge lies in integrating these siloed initiatives into a coordinated implementation process.
To help coordinate these efforts, Wayne State University’s Center for Behavioral Health and Justice received millage funding to streamline and synchronize efforts from the State of Michigan Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform, the Youth Assessment Planning Committee, and the Washtenaw Equity Partnership.
“The best solutions emerge out of deliberative, comprehensive, and inclusive processes where diversity of perspective is invited and encouraged,” says Terri Gilbert, former manager for the juvenile justice initiative at the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice.
Together, participants will identify opportunities to work upstream to prevent system involvement, reversing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Ultimately, the work will develop action plans, strategies, and timelines that harmonize their efforts for a more impactful and unified approach to youth justice reform.
Wayne State’s work will follow a four-step process where “community members can work effectively together to address problems and meet the needs and interests of those most impacted by the decisions,” says Gilbert.
This collaborative approach, set to be completed in the summer of 2024, seeks to bring about meaningful reform in the youth justice system.
“This work is an opportunity to braid these three bodies of work together and come up with recommendations that the county can use to revamp our juvenile justice system to seek the best outcomes for young people in our community,” says Lisa Gentz.