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Progress Report: Michigan and Ohio Reforms

May 26, 2016
Zoe Schein

In the last week of April 2016, Michigan’s House of Representatives passed a comprehensive package of 20 bills aimed at reforming the state’s youth justice system. The reforms included in the bill address issues such as the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, increasing restrictions on automatic waiver, addressing issues of solitary confinement for youth, and creating a Family Advisory Commission to increase the participation of family members of incarcerated people in decision-making processes. 

“The bills were sparked by a report we put out in 2014 called ‘Youth Behind Bars,’” said Kristen Staley, Deputy Director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD), an NJJN member and the organization spearheading this reform effort. “We at MCCD came up with a lot of the draft language, and many of the issues the bills address correspond directly to recommendations we made in that report.  We’ve had hundreds of organizations—both local and national—sign on with our Raise the Age Michigan campaign, so we’ve seen a lot of support for these reforms.” 

Among the most exciting changes proposed by the bills, said Staley, are those that would prohibit the placement of youth under the age of 18 in an adult facility—a step beyond the Prison Rape Elimination Act’s, “sight and sound separation” requirement.  Another bill requires that the state create a clear policy on the use of solitary confinement. “Right now, there’s no separate policy for youth when it comes to solitary,” said Staley. “But with this bill, the Department of Corrections would be required to create a separate, youth-specific policy. In this bill, that would mean anyone under the age of 21—not just 18.” 

The bill now goes to the state senate for approval. Visit RaiseTheAgeMI.org  for more information. 

A bill recently passed the Ohio House of Representatives that would make significant reforms to the state’s truancy and school discipline policies. H.B. 410, which was approved by Ohio’s House on May 4, 2016, would eliminate the ability of Ohio schools to refer truant youth directly to juvenile court as well as their ability to suspend or expel students for truancy. Instead, the bill requires that schools set up an absence intervention plan to identify and address the root causes of a student’s absences.

“The focus of the bill is to identify the deeper issues that cause a student to miss school, and to address those problems directly to get the student back on track,” said Erin Davies, Executive Director of Ohio’s Juvenile Justice Coalition (an NJJN member). “A student could be missing school for any number of reasons. It could be bullying, not feeling safe at school, parents having health issues, transportation issues, and so on. So ideally, an absence intervention plan could involve anyone from school staff, the student’s parents, community members, service agencies—everyone who needs to be involved to address those underlying problems and bring the student back into the fold of school.”

“The bill also requires that the state school board create a school discipline policy that moves away from zero tolerance and toward a more preventative model for discipline—since we know that zero tolerance is ineffective at getting to the students’ real needs.”

The Juvenile Justice Coalition has led a task force in support of the bill along with their broader, statewide coalition, the Ohio Juvenile Justice Alliance. “We’ve been doing a lot of advocacy work in partnership with the Alliance,” said Davies. “We’ve had state call-in days, an editorial in the Columbus Dispatch newspaper as well as other media coverage, and we’ve gotten the support of a variety of groups to really build a broad base of support.”

While H.B. 410 has passed the Ohio House and has had one hearing in the state Senate, the final vote will likely occur when the Senate resumes in the fall.  The Senate version of the bill is expected to go further on school discipline, including putting language into law to move away from zero tolerance and towards a tiered discipline system as well as barring schools from suspending and expelling students in pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade.


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