Enhancing Juvenile Court Diversion in Michigan
By: Jason Smith, Executive Director at Michigan Center for Youth Justice
Diversion is a community-led approach founded on principles of youth well-being and restorative justice that serves as a successful alternative to traditional court involvement. In most cases, diversion programs cost less, are more effective at reducing recidivism, and avoid the harms that could result from formal court supervision.
While most communities in Michigan offer some form of diversion from juvenile court involvement, it is not the default option in every county. Youth with similar offenses may be offered diversion or traditional juvenile court process solely based on where they live. The use of screenings and assessments to determine risk levels, diversion eligibility, and inform treatment decisions are inconsistent across Michigan counties and non-existent in others. The lack of consistency in diversion processes and practices can lead to unequal treatment for youth, which disproportionately impacts youth of color, and is a missed opportunity to identify and address underlying issues before formal court supervision.
Additionally, the Child Care Fund (CCF)—the primary statewide juvenile justice funding source—requires a court referral and the provision of intensive supervision, which makes it challenging for jurisdictions to fund and support pre-court or pre-arrest diversion programs. To address statewide issues with diversion, the Michigan Task Force on Juvenile Justice reform approved several recommendations, including requiring a validated risk screening tool and a validated mental health screening tool to inform diversion and consent calendar decisions.
The Task Force also recommends expanding the CCF so local courts and tribes can use funding as they see fit for pre-arrest diversion and eliminating “intensive” requirements so counties can match supervision/services to the youth’s risk level. Moreover, the Task Force suggests expanding the Diversion Act so that all offenses—except for the most serious ones—are eligible for pre-court diversion based on established local criteria and the use of a risk screening tool.
MCYJ fully supports the Task Force recommendations and will advocate for them as legislative reforms this year. The legal system must be the option of last resort when responding to youthful misbehavior, and all communities should provide opportunities for young people to learn from their mistakes, repair harm to victims, and address needs with treatment and resources instead of punitive measures. Youth-serving systems must acknowledge adolescent development research and invest in front-end diversion.
With the Task Force’s recommendations and legislative reforms, Michigan can become a leader in youth diversion and improve the overall well-being of its youth. To learn more about diversion, check out the Sentencing Project’s report: Diversion: A Hidden Key to Combating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice.