By: Jason Smith, Executive Director at Michigan Center for Youth Justice
Research has demonstrated that youth involved in the juvenile justice system significantly benefit from community-based services. A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation revealed that youth placed in community-oriented programs have a higher chance of graduating high school, securing employment, and avoiding re-arrest compared to those in residential facilities.
In contrast, placement in juvenile justice facilities can have severe repercussions for youth, exposing them to heightened risks of violence, abuse, and neglect. Considering these potential harms, Michigan must persistently explore ways to refine the system and safeguard young people whenever it is necessary to place them within a facility. Expanding the role of the Office of Children's Ombudsman through House Bill 4638, a component of the extensive bill package implementing many of the recommendations from the Michigan Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force, is a significant step towards this goal.
This legislation introduces crucial amendments to the Office of Children's Ombudsman. It proposes renaming the office as the Office of the Child Advocate and broadening the powers and duties of this role. It also details the responsibilities of various state departments, officers, county and private agencies, and residential facilities involved in juvenile justice services. In addition, the bill offers remedies for certain administrative acts, thereby addressing the systemic challenges head-on, fostering transparency and strong responsiveness to the needs and concerns of youth in facilities.
Most notably, HB 4638 proposes that the Child Advocate be responsible for receiving and processing complaints, conducting investigations, holding informal hearings, and findings and recommendations. This includes educating the public and advocating for legislative changes that serve the best interests of children. The Office of the Child Advocate would hold the exclusive discretion and authority to decide whether a complaint falls within their jurisdiction to investigate and have the power to initiate investigations, even without a formal complaint.
HB 4638 provides a remarkable opportunity for Michigan to substantially improve its juvenile justice system. By advancing this legislation and making it state law, we can prioritize the protection of youth rights and enhance the quality of care in juvenile justice facilities. MCYJ is committed to ensuring HB 4638 becomes law during the current legislative session, enabling more equitable and compassionate treatment of justice-involved youth.