Reports Outline Opportunities for Juvenile Diversion Programs in Michigan

A pair of recent reports examine the impact of juvenile diversion programs and youth arrests in Michigan.

In a report from the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD), authors Jason Smith and Michelle Weemhoff look at juvenile diversion programs in 69 of the state’s 83 counties, offer best practices and suggest policy recommendations to create more effective programs.

More than 90 percent of youth arrests in Michigan are for nonviolent offenses, with a disproportionate impact on youth of color, girls and students with disabilities, according to the report.

In Restoring Kids Transforming Communities: Enhancing Michigan’s Approach to Juvenile Diversion, the authors describe juvenile diversion in Michigan as an effective alternative to traditional juvenile justice court proceedings and as a way to address the factors that cause involvement in the juvenile justice system while still holding youth accountable for their actions.

According to Smith and Weemhoff, effective juvenile diversion is characterized by restorative justice practices that build a relationship between the community, the victim and the offender. The report analyzes existing Michigan diversion programs and identifies positive characteristics, such as practices that seek to decriminalize youth and awareness of the external factors that affect at-risk youth in child welfare, school, and police-based interactions.

Effective diversion programs also can help at-risk youth get access to support and services, like untreated mental health needs. A study by the Michigan Mental Health Commission in 2004 found that 61 percent of males and 74 percent of females entering Michigan’s juvenile justice system had serious mental health needs.

The report also cites the significant cost savings of using diversion as an alternative to traditional court proceedings. A Michigan State University cost-benefit analysis of the Adolescent Diversion Program in East Lansing, an 18-week informal intervention for at-risk youth in a special youth court, found that average costs for youth court proceedings were $1,021 per youth, far less than $13,466, the average cost of a local family court for the youth.

Smith and Weemhoff identified nine trends that address the challenges of Michigan’s diversion programs, including a need for continuous evaluation of the diversion process to provide informed assessments of each youth.

Smith and Weemhoff offer policy recommendations to guide state policymakers, and stakeholders. Among these are the need to stop criminalizing adolescent behavior, reducing youth arrests, and requiring diversion programs in every county in Michigan.

A report released by Human Impact Partners looks more extensively at the negative emotional and physical impacts of youth arrests in Michigan, focusing on three jurisdictions: Detroit, Wayne County and Washtenaw County. The report concludes that youth arrests are part of traumatizing social and environmental setting that can inhibit a youth’s future job, education, and health outcomes.

The process of being detained by the police, put in handcuffs, and taken to a police station, can be stigmatizing for youth. Between 75 and 93 percent of youth in the juvenile system have experienced some degree of trauma prior to their arrest, according to the report.

The consequences of just one arrest can be detrimental to a youth’s future. Youth arrests cause increased student absenteeism and can cause schools to initiate exclusionary policies towards a student. Having a criminal record can also affect employment options. The Society for Human Resource Management reports that job applicants with a criminal record are 50 percent less likely to receive a callback or job offer than those with no record.

Like Smith and Weemhoff, the authors identify diversion as a cost-effective way to decrease the likelihood of re-arrest. They provide five recommendations for policymakers, including focusing on implementing practices that divert youth arrest, training agencies to be trauma-informed, and changing state sentencing and expungement laws. The authors also strongly emphasize the importance of trauma-informed training for police and the need for programs that work to build trust between police and youth.

Read the MCCD report here and the Human Impact Partners report here.

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Legislative leaders in California have produced an initial plan to achieve Gov. Gavin Newsom's call for the closure of the state's Department of #JuvenileJustice, which once housed more than 10,000 youth and young adults and now holds fewer than 1,000.