Long-running Ann Arbor nonprofit refocuses efforts on reforming Michigan’s youth justice system
the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, an Ann Arbor-based advocacy organization, may have changed its name in 2020, but it’s hardly the new kid on the block.
For more than 60 years, the nonprofit organization formerly known as the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency has been a leader in partnering with communities on crime prevention strategies, promoting access fair and equitable justice, expanding community alternatives to incarceration and improving outcomes through safe and effective treatment.
“Historically, we have always focused on the policy issues facing both the criminal justice and youth justice systems here in Michigan,” says Jason Smith, a longtime staff member who has become director. MCYJ executive in January. “In the last decade, there have been more advocacy organizations that have taken the lead and doing a really good job in the adult system. But there really was no organization across the board. the state that focused exclusively on young people. “
Jason Smith, Executive Director of MCYJ.
Even before the official rebranding, recent initiatives by the organization included the Raise the Age campaign, which succeeded in raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18, preventing young people from surrendering in adult courts. And he succeeded in passing a law improving the protection of the confidentiality of the files of minors. And Smith, like many of his staff, has a background as a social worker who has provided direct service to youth involved in the justice system. The name of the organization and the change in leadership seemed natural – and necessary.
Since Michigan’s juvenile justice system is run at the county level, there is no statewide data source to rely on to lobby for legislative changes. How many children are in the system at any given time?
“There’s an estimate we can give, but it’s hard to know a really precise number. And of those kids, what’s the breakdown of offenses? Are they there for violent offenses or things like truancy? ” Smith asks. “We have been successful over the past two years in advancing our policy priorities with very little data, but it will be increasingly difficult to do so.”
Lobbying for the creation of a statewide data collection system is one of the ongoing initiatives of the MCYJ.
Decentralization of the youth justice system also means that counties individually dictate important decisions on issues such as resource allocation, programming, and philosophy regarding community care or detention.
“We call it ‘justice by geography,’ which means a child’s experience in the justice system can really vary depending on where they live,” says Smith.
Fines and court costs are also at the discretion of the counties. The MCYJ’s current debt-free justice campaign aims to normalize these costs.
“If we are to have a justice system, it should be predictable across the state,” says Husain Haidri, MCYJ’s outreach and community engagement manager. “But also, families who are affected should be able to leave with a child who can reintegrate without being burdened with debt. Our goal is to eliminate these fines and fees.”
Husain Haidri, MCYJ outreach and community engagement manager.
Every community in the state of Michigan – ethnic, racial and socioeconomic – is affected by youth justice, Haidri notes. And yet, he says, it is an invisible problem.
“There is a lot of confidentiality around these cases, which is a good thing, but it is difficult for people to realize the structural problems of the youth justice system because these stories are not public,” said Haidri.
He works to find families of affected youth who are ready to share their experiences.
“We can teach them how to effectively share their story. Then we can organize public education events and coffee hours with lawmakers to raise awareness about this important issue, ”he says.
MCYJ has also launched a new two-pronged volunteer initiative. The Advocates program invites people to connect with any aspect of MCYJ’s work, whether it’s fundraising, campaigning, or graphic design.
“What I’m really passionate about is engaging local artists who can present these issues in creative ways,” says Haidri, who himself became involved with the MCYJ as a volunteer while working on the campaign. Raise the Age.
The Ambassador program is a longer term commitment, in which volunteers will be trained to share the history of the CJSM with their work, their university and their faith communities. Ultimately, Ambassadors will create advocacy centers around the state that can inspire citizens to lobby their lawmakers.
“What really excites me is that people from diverse backgrounds are finding common ground in youth justice – an issue that doesn’t get as much attention – and that produce, ”says Haidri.
Smith notes that at the same time the MCYJ is shifting gears, as is the youth justice system itself.
“He’s moving away from the era of fighting crime and the politics of the ’80s and’ 90s, to realize that young people who have problems are still children,” he says. “You have to recognize that to help them be successful in solving the problems or needs that took them to court or law enforcement in the first place.”
As courts shift to therapeutic and rehabilitative relationships with youth and improve engagement with family members, the MCJJ advocates for best practices.
“Like any other helping profession, the youth justice system is an ever-changing system,” says Smith. “You always find better ways to serve children without harming, but rather to help them. Our goal is to continue this evolution.”
More information on MCYJ is available at the organization’s website.
Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food and culture. She holds an MA in Fine Arts from Hunter College. His essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.
All pictures from Doug Coombe.