Juvenile justice system strives to meet needs of local youth

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By Chief Judge Duncan M. Beagle
and Presiding Judge John A. Gadola
7th Circuit Court, Genesee County

The Detroit Free Press recently published an article written by ProPublica which was extremely critical of the juvenile justice system in Michigan. Unfortunately the criticisms were based on outdated and irrelevant data.
The notion that family courts in Michigan are just randomly “locking up” juveniles for no reason is simply not factual. Furthermore, the hard-working people actually working in the juvenile justice system are left out of conversations about the system, and any changes needed to the juvenile justice system.

The Genesee County Family Division is very well prepared to provide community-based services to the youth and families that become involved with the court system. Our judges, administration, and juvenile court staff are well-informed on adolescent development and are prepared to meet the needs of the youth from our community. To allege that the court is unaware of adolescent development is simply inaccurate. The court knows best the needs of our own geographical community. We are not reforming a legal system that is “broken,” but instead we are continually progressing as a court to meet the needs of our community and the court-involved youth. 

The beginning of a new year is typically a good time of reflection. While 2020 has been anything but typical, we still have much to celebrate. It is a good time to inform the citizens of Genesee County of the work that is being done to implement best practice in the Genesee County juvenile justice system. The Circuit Court judges assigned to the Family Division are very proud of the work of all involved in our juvenile justice system. There should be no “outrage” about our system, and it is with great pride that we provide further details of our system in Genesee County.

The law in Michigan requires courts to attempt to rehabilitate a juvenile who becomes involved in the court system. The goal of the juvenile justice system is not punishment. Rather, the stated goal of the juvenile justice system is to help youth avoid future court-involvement through rehabilitative services. We achieve this goal through implementing juvenile justice best practices such as the use of risk and needs assessments, diverting youth from the court when possible, developing strong community collaborations and programs, and developing professional staff that are change agents in the lives of youth.  These rehabilitative services are provided with public funding at little or no cost to the families.  The services provided include legal representation for youth at every stage of the court process.  The legal representation in Genesee County is provided by attorneys who practice exclusively in juvenile matters, are highly trained, and are experts in their field.  This legal representation is provided at little or no cost to the families.  Genesee County is a leader in this regard.

Risk/Needs Assessments

Effective use of risk and needs assessments is one of the more important evidence-based practices a juvenile justice system can adopt. It provides guidance to key decisions that are critical to a system’s efficiency and effectiveness.  In particular, the assessments inform decisions regarding the level of supervision appropriate to each juvenile, and the nature and extent of the services needed to create positive behavior change. The advantages of using risk and needs assessments to guide levels of supervision and treatment planning are twofold. First, when used systematically these assessments result in greater consistency in the treatment of juveniles. Second, a long history of research has demonstrated that, with rare exceptions, assessments based on empirical predictive factors perform better. This does not mean that the judgment of experienced casework staff is irrelevant, only that it is improved if it is informed by a well-developed risk and needs assessment.

Genesee County has been using the Youth Level Service/Case Management Inventory (YLS/CMI) risk/needs assessment since 2013 to assist with our decision-making process.  It is imperative that each jurisdiction have the flexibility to meet the needs of the youth within our community.  A “decentralized” system should not be considered as a negative, but instead it gives the power to each county to determine the needs of their youth and to support them accordingly.  The YLS/CMI risk assessment assists our court with this endeavor. Not only can we make fair decisions about the needs of each individual youth, we can gather data over time to make sure the community programs we use are reflective of the needs of all of the youth we serve.

Diversion

Diversion programs can hold youth accountable for their behavior without formal court oversight or unnecessary involvement in the juvenile justice system. Our court has significantly expanded our use of diversion since 2017.  The decision to divert youth requires appropriate responses and services that align with the risk and needs of the youth, including the option of taking no action beyond warning and dismissing the court case in many circumstances.  Our diversion efforts have been successful.  In 2020, the Genesee County Family Division diverted 34 percent of all the delinquency petitions filed with our juvenile court, and 92 percent of the cases that were diverted, did not have another petition filed.

Diversion is prevention in the juvenile justice system. While many call for the expanded use of diversion, there is no funding for these efforts.  The funding mechanism established by the State of Michigan, the Child Care Fund, only pays for juveniles that are most at risk for re-offending.  This funding requires an intensive level of supervision and oversight of youth by the court.  This level of court involvement is often not warranted for most youth. In fact, this funding covers a very small portion of the youth in the juvenile justice system.  In order to expand diversion efforts, funding must be expanded and made available to support courts in their efforts to keep youth out of the formal juvenile justice system.

Detention

The court does have the legal authority to detain youth who violate the terms of their probation. When the court finds there have been reasonable efforts to keep the juvenile in the community, and it is contrary to the welfare of the juvenile to remain in the community, detention may be required.  Justice-involved youth are not sentenced to detention, and detention is not used as a punishment.  Youth that present as a public safety risk are detained while their attorney resolves their case, and while the Court makes a determination regarding the services that are needed upon release.  While some youth will require detention because of public safety issues, Genesee County has targeted efforts to avoid detention for low-risk youth; to avoid detention for technical violations of probation; and to shorten the length of time a juvenile remains in a detention setting.  We have accomplished these goals by implementing alternatives to detention, and an incentives and sanctions program.

 In many jurisdictions, judges and juvenile caseworkers have two options when faced with a youth who has been arrested: they can either release the youth to his or her parents or another responsible adult, or detain the youth in a secure detention facility.  Genesee County offers a continuum of detention alternatives, with various programs and degrees of supervision that are matched to the risks of the youth.  In addition to the secure detention program, the continuum includes home confinement or community supervision; an evening reporting center for youth who lack structured daily activities; and a staff secure transition program.

The incentives and sanctions program, the AIM program, was established for the juvenile caseworkers to ensure swift and equitable sanctions for technical (non-criminal) violations of probation. The purpose of the AIM program is to respond to technical violations of probation in a consistent manner that considers both the needs of the juvenile and the safety of the community.  Of equal importance to sanctions, the juvenile caseworkers utilize incentives for behaviors that demonstrate competency development. We have improved, and the use of secure detention has decreased by 30%. 

Evidenced-based community services

We have enough data and experiences with young people and families to know that we must move away from a juvenile justice system that relies too heavily out-of-home placements, and focus our resources on evidenced-based programs that can be provided in the community.   Community-based programs are only successful when a strong partnership exists with agencies whose mission aligns with that of the Court.  We have built such relationships.  Genesee Health Systems provides a Multi-systemic therapy program for our youth; Easterseals of Michigan provides an array of intensive mental health services for our youth; Peckham, Inc., along with the Mt. Morris School District, provides a community-based school for our youth; the Genesee Intermediate School District provides violence intervention services for our youth; and Odyssey House provides several substance use programs for our youth.  These are only a few programs we have to offer the youth who are involved in the Court system.

In our continued efforts to implement best practice interventions, the juvenile caseworkers have been participating in a multi–year collaborative training with the University of Cincinnati in the EPICS model.  Effective Practices in Community Supervision (EPICS) is a cognitive-behavioral model of practice. The model is intended to reduce recidivism through structured, intervention-based sessions. Juvenile caseworkers use the EPICS model to teach youth alternative thinking to improve their pro-social behavior.

Because of our work to implement a community-based service model, our out of home placement of youth in residential facilities, both in state and out of state, have declined over the years.  At one time, there were close to 100 youth in residential placement.  In 2020, there were only 14 youth in residential placements.  This is not only a significant cost-savings, but it is also better for youth and families.

The Value of Education

Contrary to recent claims that family judges regularly lock youth up for skipping school, the Genesee County Family Division, the Genesee County Intermediate School District, Genesee Health Systems, Easterseals of Michigan, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services have been leaders in collaborating to reduce truancy in Genesee County.  Genesee County provides intensive case-management services, mental health support, mediation services, and other diversion services to reduce truancy. Through regular meetings of the Attendance Task Force, community leaders strive to understand the reasons for chronic absences, and then provide the necessary support to overcome the barriers to school attendance.

Our court has recently begun working with the Genesee Intermediate School district to provide early intervention services to families that are experiencing barriers to school attendance.  In our experience, truancy is driven by poverty and mental health issues.  In an attempt to resolve a prevailing need in our community, which is to meet the educational needs of the youth enrolled in our local schools, we are providing early intervention services to prevent taking formal court action. This initiative is having great success to meet our community needs.

The Juvenile Justice Center

On Sept. 16, 2020 Genesee County officials and judges broke ground at the site of the future Juvenile Justice Center on Pasadena Avenue in Flint Township. The new $20 million building will be located on the grounds of the current Genesee Valley Regional Center (GVRC), which has served solely as a secure detention facility for court-involved youth since the 1950s. Once completed, the 48,500-square foot building will be provide a secure detention program when necessary, an alternate detention program for youth who can be supervised in the community, day treatment services to include education, family-treatment, and vocational support; and a residential treatment program for youth who are in need more intensive support.

As our best practices have been implemented, there was a need to design a building to address these changing policies, and to address the gaps in services for youth and families involved with the Court. A shift to more community-based, family-involved treatment required an environment that is not only safe and secure, but child-centered and flexible enough to allow the delivery of a wide range of treatment services. 

The Juvenile Justice Center will look more like a school or community center than a jail—and that’s by intention. The facility will be durable, yet safe, and feel less institutional. There is natural light, softer colors, furnishings and spaces that feel more like classrooms than detention. At the same time, the design offers clear lines of sight and layouts that allow for efficient use of staff resources and strong supervision.

To support a more trauma-informed and evidenced-based approach, the staff at the facility have been going through a program redesign as well.  We have been collaborating with the University of Cincinnati to train the staff in the models of Core Correctional Practices and CHOICES.  These cognitive-behavioral models emphasize developing relationships skills, effective use of reinforcement, effective use of authority, prosocial modeling, cognitive restructuring, social skills training and problem solving skills.

The Juvenile Justice Center is a much-needed investment in the youth and families of this community. While we agree that more should be done by the State of Michigan to provide financial support for juvenile justice prevention services, we must invest in the services for youth and families who are involved with the Court system.

The Juvenile Justice Center will be completed by early 2022.

Accountability and transparency in our work is critical.  It is important to continually evaluate the work we have done, and improve as we learn.  However, progress is not possible without an accurate assessment of current standing.  Inflammatory articles and accusations put forth by ProPublica that paint Michigan’s juvenile justice system with a broad brush require analysis.  To put forth that family judges are routinely locking children up for noncriminal offenses like disobeying their parents or skipping school is FALSE.  To allege the system is archaic, that judges routinely “lock-up” youth is a false narrative that needs to be confronted.  While the headlines are attention grabbers, they are not an accurate reflection of the work being done.

In a subsequent live event, panelists explored the problems with Michigan’s juvenile justice system and potential paths to reform.

The expert panel did not include one Family Division judge, one court official, to lend a voice to the current work of the juvenile justice system.  Although the panel did come up with suggestions for reform, not one suggestion was a new idea that hasn’t been put forth by family courts for many years.

 The juvenile justice system does require a data collection system to capture data that already exists; funding for diversion and prevention services should be a focus;  quality legal defense is required at all stages of the legal process; and juvenile justice must be a State budget priority.

We are happy to join the conversation, discuss our successes, areas where we can progress, if we are invited to the conversation. Courts should be included in the conversation at all levels not only because we know what is needed, but also because we have many of the same goals. 

The ProPublica article can be accessed at https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/12/22/michigan-juvenilejustice-system-archaic/4008880001/





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