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‘It's really groundbreaking’: Up North courts weigh in on juvenile justice bills

Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist signs legislation to revamp Michigan’s juvenile justice system in Detroit Tuesday Dec. 12, 2023.
Michigan Office of the Lieutenant Governor
Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist signs legislation to revamp Michigan’s juvenile justice system in Detroit Tuesday Dec. 12, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor)

The measures — signed into law Thursday — take aim at reforming the state's juvenile justice system and correcting some of the critiques against it.

As the state gears up to reform its juvenile justice system, northern Michigan courts say that the issue of finding placements still persists.

A bundle of 19 bills were signed into law this week by Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilcrist II, in Detroit. They take aim at the state's faulty juvenile justice system which has been criticized by advocates for practicing over-incarceration and lacking the necessary funding.

Specifically, the new laws will divert more money to community-based services like family counseling and mental health services — all of which are seen by experts as better alternatives than jail time for the youth.

A 2022 investigation by the Record-Eagle and Interlochen Public Radio found the lack of in-patient mental health care for juvenile offenders was especially common in northern Michigan. Juveniles can sometimes be lodged in emergency rooms for weeks awaiting placement in a dedicated facility.

The problem stems from lack of staffing, funding and beds across the region. If juveniles are admitted, the facilities they are placed in can often be located hours away from their families.

Senate Bill 418 says the state’s Child Care Fund Unit will issue 75 percent reimbursements to counties for diverting juveniles to community programs rather than putting them in jail — a 25 percent increase

“That money will be really great for the county,” said Grand Traverse County Probate and Family Court Judge Jennifer Whitten, who said that bill will have the biggest impact here.

With the additional funding that the measure provides, Whitten said they may be able to hire an additional person to work on diversion programs in the county. Diversion programs offer additional resources for judges before having to think about placement as an option, she said.

Leelanau County family court clerk Cameron Clark and Judge Marian Kromkowski agree.

Kromkowski added that Clark has been on “the ground floor,” of many of the committees that began reevaluating some of these issues within the juvenile justice system at the state level.

“It’s really going to help move the needle for a lot of kids who need interventions earlier on in their lives to get them in and out of the system relatively quickly without any scar tissue.”
Cameron Clark
Leelanau County family court clerk

“Cameron and many others really pushed this along to the finish line,” she said. “Kudos to him and that Leelanau County was able to cooperate in such a way.”

“This legislation is really groundbreaking,” Clark said. “It’s really going to help move the needle for a lot of kids who need interventions earlier on in their lives to get them in and out of the system relatively quickly without any scar tissue.”

In Grand Traverse County, family court administrator Kristyn Brendel said they currently offer diversion programs through community resources, as well as Reining Liberty, Peace Ranch and Butterfly Foundation.

Based on data provided by Brendel's office, the family court in Grand Traverse currently has 54 kids on probation and six in the diversion program, which just started in October.

“The point of this was to emphasize to courts to try and use community based programs instead of out of home placements,” Clark said. “That 75 percent reimbursement isn’t supposed to be a windfall for the counties, the intent for the legislation really is to reinvest that higher reimbursement rate for additional programming in order to strengthen our home based programs.”

In Leelanau, he said their number one tool is personal and individual relationships between court staff and children. Their wages and benefits are paid for through that fund.

He said with this increase in funding, they’ll be able to afford more therapy programs through Community Mental Health and Northern Lakes, which can be expensive.

“These aren’t problems, these are kids growing up and facing challenges,” Kromkowski reiterated.

But, in some cases, Whitten said some children have exhausted all diversion programs and have no other option than placement.

This past year she said she hasn’t had to send any juveniles to out-of-state detention centers or treatment facilities, but she said other counties in the state aren’t so lucky.

“These aren’t problems, these are kids growing up and facing challenges.”
Judge Marian Kromkowski
Leelanau County family court

She said there’s still a backlog of finding beds for children who need them. None of this new legislation specifically addressed that.

"This achievement is a direct outcome of a thorough, data-driven review of Michigan’s juvenile justice system and highlights the dedication and leadership of a diverse coalition of stakeholders,” Nina Salomon, deputy division director of the Corrections and Reentry Division at The Council of State Governments Justice Center, said in a press release. “We are excited about the impact of this ambitious reform on Michigan’s youth and on public safety.”

In 2021, the Michigan Task Force on Juvenile Justice was charged with examining a system that was not working — one plagued with shortages of all kinds, confusion on a county-by-county basis, lack of data and even arbitrary cruelty where kids ended up confined for long periods.

The group brought together advocates, former justice-involved youth, and law enforcement. It released a slew of recommendations last year to inform the bills signed this week.

They found in 2019, nearly half of all cases initiated in juvenile court in Michigan were for minor issues like missing school or property crimes. Many of these cases ended in incarceration.

As for solving the shortages in residential mental health and detention facilities, the task force recommended forming a statewide residential advisory committee. That group became a reality in October, 2022 and was tasked to review licensing, staff training, length-of-stay, and case management standards.

These new laws will officially be in effect starting in 2024.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.