Voices of Youth: Building a restorative future for Washtenaw County's juvenile justice system

Young people may be bewildered and marked for life by a justice system that can seem ignorant of their vulnerable state. These young activists, and others across the county, are working to change that.
This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Concentrate managing editor Patrick Dunn examines the impact of the juvenile justice system – an issue of importance raised in our listening sessions with local youth.

Navigating the juvenile justice system as a first-time offender at age 15, Ypsilanti resident Lucinda Printup says she felt "clueless."

"I felt like I was blind through all of it because no one took the time to help me understand what was going to be happening and the changes this was going to put in my life," says Printup, now 16. "... Nothing was explained. I had no knowledge of the court system until I actually sat down and tried to understand it myself."

Printup emphasizes that she speaks not just for herself, but for young people across Washtenaw County and beyond who are bewildered and marked for life by a justice system that can seem ignorant of their vulnerable state. Printup was charged with assault after getting into what she describes as an "altercation" at school, then sentenced to probation. Printup says she wishes the court system would have better taken into account the harrowing life circumstances that led up to her arrest. Prior to her arrest, she was in a vulnerable emotional state after having to testify in court about being sexually assaulted. 

"Instead of just automatically trying to put a juvenile on probation, talk to them," she says. "Ask them, 'Why did this happen? What caused you to act like you acted? What led up to the things happening that happened? What can we do to make sure that this doesn't happen again?'"

Printup says her probation itself has also been a frustrating experience. Although she followed the terms of her probation by keeping detailed records of her activities and leaving voicemails to explain absences from home to her probation officer, she says her messages were often disregarded and she was called back to court for violating her probation. Similarly, she says she was frustrated that she wasn't given sufficient advance notice of the time or location of her court dates. 

"I felt like nobody was on my side until I started speaking up and saying, 'Hey, people like me, we need people to advocate for us,'" Printup says. "People could communicate with us. We need people there to actually give us the right information that we need.'"
Lucinda Printup.
Printup, who attended many of her court hearings alone due to her father being ill, eventually got more support from court staff, as well as from staff at the Ypsilanti nonprofit Student Advocacy Center. But she says she's still struggling to pay off $200 in court fees, which have ballooned over time as a result of late fees.

"Not every juvenile is financially stable to pay fines and fees," she says. "I know some people who spend half their life trying to pay off their fines and fees."

Printup says her experience with the juvenile justice system has affected her life "mentally and physically." Her many court dates have caused her to fall behind in school, and at times she's sacrificed food and other basic needs in order to pay her fees.

"I have so many down days," she says. "There were times where I just felt like I can't do this."

"Youth just don't have the opportunities to advocate for themselves"

Other young Washtenaw County residents are working to reform juvenile justice so that young people like Printup have fairer, less damaging experiences. Ann Arbor resident Fonsea Bagchi is a junior at Huron High School and a youth board member at the Michigan Center for Youth Justice (MCYJ), an Ann Arbor nonprofit. Bagchi joined MCYJ's board two and a half years ago, and has also since started a youth justice club at Huron.

Bagchi echoes Printup's sentiment that youth in the justice system have alarmingly little power to stand up for themselves, and surprisingly few allies who will stand up for them. He references the case of Cornelius Frederick, 16, who died in 2020 at a Kalamazoo-area residential treatment facility for children who have been removed from their homes and/or been court-ordered into the juvenile justice system. Frederick died after being restrained for 10 minutes by facility staff, who were responding to the boy throwing a sandwich in the facility's cafeteria. His death was ruled a homicide.

"It was considerably small in media coverage of it, but it was a really big deal and it was really scary," Bagchi says. "Youth just don't have the opportunities to advocate for themselves, especially if they're incarcerated or in a juvenile detention facility."
Fonsea Bagchi.
Another major problem, Bagchi says, is that the policymakers guiding the juvenile justice system often aren't representative of the communities of color who are most affected by that system.

"With the history of racism in the United States and how that comes into play in building a justice system, ... I think having more representation is really important," he says.

Printup says one big change she'd like to see in the system is the implementation of a job court, similar to a pilot program the state of Michigan recently created for adult offenders. The pilot will allow up to 450 defendants accused of low-level crimes in Wayne, Genesee, and Marquette counties to obtain jobs in which they'll be monitored by state staff for one year, after which they can have their charges dismissed.

"Instead of trying to lock the juveniles up, ... they can go and focus their attention on one thing instead of being out or running with the wrong crowd or doing the wrong things," Printup says.

"Working together from the same playbook"

Bagchi says one bright spot in Washtenaw County's juvenile justice system is County Prosecutor Eli Savit. Savit took office in 2021 and has since instituted a number of progressive policies, including announcing that the county would no longer prosecute minors for low-level offenses

"He's done a really good job of collaborating with organizations like MCYJ, and really being open to listening and hearing through those communities," Bagchi says of Savit.

Savit says juvenile justice reform has been a priority for him because he "made mistakes" as a young person himself. However, he says, due to his privilege as a white man growing up in Ann Arbor, he experienced the consequences of those mistakes through his family or school rather than the justice system. He says all young people who make mistakes should enjoy the same "benefit of the doubt."

"Kids should learn from their mistakes," Savit says. "There should be accountability, but you don't need to put them in the criminal legal system. That can be dealt with through the school, through parents, the same way it's been dealt with for a lot of our youth for a long, long time. It's really just about applying the same standard to everybody."
Eli Savit.
For higher-level juvenile offenders, Savit says he wants to implement a "menu" of diversionary programs that take a restorative, rehabilitative approach rather than a punitive one. His office has already established a partnership with Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper and Formula 734, which diverts some young offenders into a mentorship and music education program. His office is also in the process of establishing a diversion program for offenders ages 12-25 who are also primary caregivers to a family member. That program will dismiss charges in exchange for the offender completing a program of supportive services, allowing them to continue supporting their family in the meantime. And Savit has partnered with several community funders to offer a restitution program that pays off fines and fees for young offenders who are abiding by their probation terms and otherwise staying out of trouble.

Savit acknowledges that there's still much more work to be done. He says he would love to start a job court for juveniles in Washtenaw County, and has "told this to everybody who would listen on the state level." He's also working with numerous community partners to establish a youth assessment center for the county. The center would be a non-punitive alternative to juvenile detention, where young people who've been arrested could receive behavioral health or substance use disorder assessment, or assistance with basic needs. 

Savit says the county is fortunate to have numerous institutions other than his own that are also interested in reforming juvenile justice and the justice system more broadly. He lists the county's courts, public defender's office, community organizations, and law enforcement among those.

"I think that people see the need to treat kids like kids, to give kids and young adults the resources they need to thrive, and that that does not always require formal criminal or juvenile justice involvement," Savit says. "I think we're really fortunate to have a number of systems partners here in Washtenaw County that are working together from the same playbook. None of this can be done just by the prosecutor's office or by anybody."

Bagchi notes that there are numerous opportunities for county residents of any age to join in that work, ranging from organizations like MCYJ to student groups. He encourages anyone who is interested in juvenile justice reform to contact him at fonsea.bagchi@gmail.com

"There's so many ways to get involved," he says. "It just takes reaching out."

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here.
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