A recent article in the Detroit Free Press was highly critical of Michigan's juvenile justice system. It was based on a study by a research agency, ProPublica, which claimed that the system is archaic and that judges are jailing children for many non-criminal offenses, such as skipping school. These are serious charges and require a careful response by the citizens of Midland County, as this is certainly not happening here in Midland County.
The general philosophy of the Midland County Probate and Family Court is to reduce, if not eliminate, crime, as well as rehabilitate offenders so that they can eventually flourish and prosper as contributing adult members of society. This requires the application of three broad strategies that this court has adopted over the past two decades to advance this goal. The strategies in summary are the following:
• Work with community organizations and agencies in a coordinated and integrated manner to offer evidence-based interventions and programs to prevent risk behaviors in adolescents.
• Provide evidence-based programs and treatment options to rehabilitate offenders while maintaining accountability for their crimes.
• Use a flexible, risk-based charging approach where appropriate to minimize permanent criminal records that cannot be expunged for those who are successfully rehabilitated.
Fortunately, in Midland County we have the advantage of extensive, long-term data. These strategies have been incredibly successful in reducing crime and other risky behaviors in Midland County. Some of the amazing hits include:
• Crime has dropped by nearly 90% in the last two decades (from 1,190 in 1998 to 154 crimes and adjudications in 2019 and 70% since 2005).
• There has been an 89% reduction in drug offenses with a corresponding 94% reduction in alcohol use over the past 17 years.
• The two-year recidivism rate for community youth with substance use disorders who completed Midland Kids First's Recovering Youth Futures program is approximately 15%, well below the national average of approximately 45%.
• In partnership with Midland Kids First and Midland area behavioral health providers, the court is also launching a proven child abuse prevention program developed by the University of Maryland called Safe Environment for All Children (SEEK). This promises to reduce adverse childhood experiences, thus reducing the chances of risky behavior in the future among our children.
In addition, due to these reductions in crime in the county, the court has saved approximately $14 million in out-of-community placements since 2004 and $5 million in accumulated operating costs.
community based services;
These highly desirable results were the direct result of a two-pronged approach that emphasizes both the prevention and treatment of risk behaviors using community-based "best practices." On the prevention front, many youth-serving agencies in the community have coalesced around the concept of Components of Development. 40 positive character traits that every young person must have to be successful.
This model, first introduced to the community by The Legacy Center for Community Success in 2005, emphasizes Positive Peers as the primary protective factor in preventing adolescent problems. Programs promoted by Positive Peers include participation in creative, faith-based, and organized youth activities. Of the 24 risky behaviors, Midland County youth with the full complement of assets engage in an average of 0.5 of these activities. This has been a tremendous force behind the staggering reductions in crime.
Reduce absenteeism and the school-to-prison pipeline
Another strong contributing factor is reduced absenteeism. Midland County Schools and the Midland County Department of Health and Human Services have been leaders in working with the court on a constructive approach originally called the Community Schools Program to Reduce Truancy. The program is now known as Pathway to Potential. Contrary to ProPublica's claim, as reported in the Free Press, Midland County does not lock up kids for skipping school, instead providing this enlightened approach to reduce truancy. The program requires understanding the reasons for students' chronic absenteeism and then helping them and their families overcome those barriers by connecting them with existing community resources. This is done outside of the court system with the involvement and support of all of our Midland County schools.
There is a very strong correlation between missing school and subsequent criminal behavior that eventually leads to what is called the 'School to Prison Pipeline'. Chronically lost youth struggle in school, eventually tend to drop out, and often turn to criminal and ultimately criminal activities. Nearly 70% of adult inmates have poor literacy skills and approximately half do not have a high school diploma or GED. Approximately half of the Midland County men who abuse their children have not completed high school or earned a GED. Midland County Schools also offer other important programs that try to reduce delinquent behavior. Among them is education about substance use prevention and the law and consequences of criminal sexual behavior for eighth and eleventh grade students.
The second element of the strategy is to provide interventions to address the causes of criminal behavior and ultimately prevent future offenses. The first step is to conduct a risk assessment for youth accused of a crime with the widely used Youth Assessment and Screening Instrument (YASI).
We have used risk assessments for more than 13 years, beginning in 2007. The YASI is a widely validated tool for determining a young woman's risk of pregnancy at the time of assessment. Using the YASI results, the court works with prosecutors and juvenile attorneys to determine if and by how much the original charges can be appropriately reduced. This is done through a process that still maintains responsibility for the offense, will not have the charge on the youth's permanent record, and provides an avenue to implement restorative rather than punitive services for both youth and family.
In 2019, for example, of the 96 charges filed in court, 21 felonies or 22% were reduced to misdemeanors or status offenses and 13 charges were dismissed. In our experience, this approach greatly increases a young person's chances for recovery and success in later life.
Other programs that treat offenders and their families include:
• Midland Mentors, an intensive mentoring program for at-risk youth by highly trained volunteer mentors.
• Empowering Families, an evidence-based program that provides strategies for parents and youth in the system on how to work together to deliver positive outcomes for both.
• Multi-System Treatment (MST), an evidence-based intensive family and community treatment for serious juvenile offenders and those with substance abuse problems and their families. MST-PSB (Problem Sexual Behaviors) has also been used with considerable success in the treatment of problematic sexual behaviors among young people.
• We have extensive evidence-based and evidence-influenced behavioral and mental health services provided in the courts by community agencies such as MidMichigan Health, Community Mental Health for Central Michigan, Partners in Change, and J & A Counseling and Evaluation . We have 19 evidence-based programs that are widely used and specifically target the needs and risks of individual youth.
progress through collaboration
Midland County Probate and Family Court promotes restorative rather than punitive justice practices and programs for our youth and is making incredible progress in eliminating the "School to Prison Pipeline."
This is a direct result of a coordinated and comprehensive collaborative effort between the Probate and Family Court and many community agencies, including government at various levels, law enforcement, schools, generously supporting local foundations, many nonprofits and human services and businesses that have made physical, mental, family, and behavioral health services available to our youth and families.
These efforts have helped reduce criminal and related risk behaviors, facilitate rehabilitation, ensure and guarantee accountability for crimes committed, and ultimately improve the likelihood of a successful life where all youth and families thrive. and prosper.
The ProPublica article can be accessed at https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/12/22/michigan-juvenile-justice-system-archaic/4008880001/
Dorene S. Allen is the Presiding Judge of the Midland County Juvenile and Probate Court. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and her Juris Doctorate from Michigan State University. She was first elected to the Midland County Juvenile and Probate Court in 2000 and was subsequently reelected in 2006, 2012, and 2018.