A Michigan Task Force Proposes Making It Harder To Imprison Kids for Petty Crimes
In June 2020, a 15-year-old Michigan girl was incarcerated for violating her probation. The crime: not doing her schoolwork during the COVID-19 pandemic. She had been placed on probation in April 2020 for fighting with her mother and petty theft. The girl, Grace (her middle name), was the subject of a ProPublica investigation highlighting the arbitrary cruelty of the Michigan juvenile justice system, which regularly imprisons children for petty offenses.
Last Monday, the Michigan Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform approved measures to reform the state’s juvenile justice system. The proposed changes are designed to prevent teenagers from becoming unnecessarily involved in the juvenile justice system by expanding the number of diversion programs designed to keep youth out of detention for nonviolent “status offenses” like truancy and running away, as well as low-level misdemeanor crimes. The recommendations also seek to increase training for lawyers representing juveniles, increase funding for community-based programs, and enact better data collection measures.
In Michigan, children are required to attend school until at least their 16th birthday. While the state has a vague definition of chronic absenteeism and truancy, students found to be “willfully” and repeatedly absent from school can be penalized as truants. According to a report from the Wayne State University College of Education, 20 percent of Michigan schoolchildren were “chronically absent” from school in 2019, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of the school year. In Detroit, 62 percent of public school students were chronically absent.
Frequently, truancy alone typically does not lead to a child becoming detained. Instead, children who commit other low-level misdemeanors, such as petty theft or drug use, are placed on strict probation regimens. According to Bridge Michigan, these probation orders can require everything from taking psychiatric medication to reading a book once a week. When a probation order requires regular school attendance, violations can easily land a child in juvenile detention.
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