The new legislation will keep kids out of prison for violations like a failure to complete homework.
LANSING, Mich.—Michigan is starting off 2021 by enacting criminal justice reforms that will reduce the rate of unnecessary incarcerations and improve the lives of young Michiganders in bad situations.
The laws Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Monday included ending mandatory minimum sentences for things like the first instance of failing to appear in court. In fact, for most misdemeanor offenses, law enforcement would be given the authority to simply issue a citation and release the accused. Courts are also empowered to proscribe non-jail sentences like community service for misdemeanors.
“The bills signed into law by the governor today marks the culmination of 18 months of bipartisan work and while I believe we will see safer communities and less recidivism as a result of these reforms, there is still much work ahead,” state Sen. Sylvia Santana, who worked on the prison reform legislation, told reporters. “We need to continue our commitment to making necessary changes so that families who have lost a loved one to a system that overly, and inconsistently, prosecutes people of color and the poor can get the justice they deserve.”
The overall impact is limiting how often nonviolent Michiganders have been incarcerated for misdemeanor offenses.
“I think that limiting unnecessary incarceration can be a major step to helping young people to avoid getting caught up in the school to prison pipeline,” attorney Robyn McCoy told The ‘Gander.
McCoy has specialized in the ways community programs can help Michiganders, particularly young people in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
And young people, especially, benefit from Monday’s reforms.
As ProPublica reports, Michigan’s juvenile justice system in particular is archaic. Michigan arrests children routinely for minor offenses from breaking curfew to skipping school. ProPublica’s own analysis found that 30% of those incarcerated children are jailed for noncriminal offenses. And the state also has fallen far short of adequate data collection as it relates to the incarceration of children, not even being able to definitively say how many kids are in prison.
“Much of the world has moved on, but much of our system remains stuck in the mentality that has really gone by the wayside, that no academic, that no policymaker really still believes in,” Frank Vandervort, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School’s Juvenile Justice Clinic, told ProPublica. “We have too many kids in placement. We do not have enough community-based resources. In many ways, we are two or three decades behind what is thought of in contemporary times as best practice in juvenile justice.”
A prime example of the way Michigan’s juvenile justice system was failing children came in 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. As The ‘Gander reported, a 15-year-old girl was arrested and held at a juvenile detention facility for not doing her homework. Even though her school was not penalizing students for missing assignments during the pandemic, failing to do her homework was a probation violation and resulted in her arrest.
“She hasn’t fulfilled the expectation with regard to school performance,” said the judge in her case as she was sentenced to a five-month residential program at Oakland County Children’s Village, a juvenile detention center. “I told her she was on thin ice and I told her that I was going to hold her to the letter, to the order, of the probation.”
This story is not an outlier, according to ProPublica’s analysis. Rather, this student is a symbol of Michigan’s treatment of children involved in the criminal justice system, particularly children of color. The new legislation signed Monday will not change that system overnight, but it will provide tools to keep situations like being jailed for missing schoolwork from being the norm in Michigan.