Long-lived Ann Arbor nonprofit refocuses efforts on reforming Michigan's youth justice system

The Michigan Center for Youth Justice is aiming to improve a decentralized and inconsistent system.
The Michigan Center for Youth Justice, an Ann Arbor-based advocacy organization, may have changed its name in 2020, but it's hardly the new kid on the block.

For over 60 years, the nonprofit formerly known as the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency has been a leader in partnering with communities on crime prevention strategies, promoting fair and equitable access to justice, expanding community-based alternatives to incarceration, and improving outcomes through safe and effective treatment.

"Historically, we have always focused on policy issues facing both criminal justice and youth justice systems here in Michigan," says Jason Smith, a longtime staff member who became MCYJ's executive director in January. "In the last decade, there have been more advocacy organizations that are taking the lead, and doing a really good job of it, in the adult system. But there really wasn't any statewide organization that was focused exclusively on young people."
MCYJ executive director Jason Smith.
Even before the official rebranding, the organization's recent initiatives included the Raise the Age campaign, which successfully lobbied to change the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years of age, keeping youth out of adult court. And it successfully pushed for passage of a law that improved confidentiality protections for juvenile records. And Smith, like many on his staff, has a background as a social worker who provided direct service to youth involved in the justice system. The organization's name and directional change felt natural — and necessary.

Because Michigan's juvenile justice system is managed mostly at the county level, courts collect and report data at varying levels, so it is hard to get a full picture of the system across the state. How many kids are in the system at any given time? 

"There's some estimate that we can give, but it's hard to know a really accurate number. And of those kids, what's the offense breakdown? Are they there for violent offenses or things like truancy?" Smith asks. "We have been successful over the last couple of years with advancing our policy priorities with very little data, but that will be harder and harder to do." 

Lobbying for creation of a statewide data collection system is one of MCYJ's ongoing initiatives.

The decentralization of the youth justice system also means that counties individually dictate important decisions on matters including resource allocation, programming, and philosophy around community-based care or confinement.

"We call it 'justice by geography,' meaning that a kid's experience in the justice system can really vary on where they live," Smith says.

Court fines and fees are up to the discretion of counties, too. MCYJ's current Debt-Free Justice campaign seeks to standardize these costs. 

"If we're going to have a justice system, it should be predictable across the state," says Husain Haidri, MCYJ's community outreach and engagement manager. "But also, families who are affected by this should be able to walk away with a kid who can reintegrate without being saddled by debt. Our goal is to eliminate these fines and fees." 
MCYJ community outreach and engagement manager Husain Haidri.
Every community in the state of Michigan — ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic — is affected by youth justice, Haidri notes. And yet, he says, it's an invisible problem.

"There's a lot of confidentiality around these cases, which is a good thing, but it's hard for people to realize the structural problems with the youth justice system because these stories aren't public," Haidri says. 

He is working on finding families of impacted youth who are willing to share their experiences.

"We can train them how to share their story effectively. Then we can do public education events and coffee hours with legislators to bring awareness to this important issue," he says.

MCYJ has also launched a new, two-pronged volunteer initiative. The Advocates Program invites people to plug into any aspect of MCYJ's work, whether it's fundraising, helping with a campaign, or making graphics. 

"Something I'm really excited about is engaging local artists who can present these issues in a creative way," says Haidri, who became involved with MCYJ as a volunteer himself while working on the Raise the Age campaign.

The Ambassador Program is a longer-term commitment, in which volunteers will be trained to share MCYJ's story with their work, university, and faith-based communities. Ultimately ambassadors will create advocacy hubs around the state that will be able to activate citizens to lobby their legislators.

"What I'm really excited about is having people with diverse backgrounds finding common ground in youth justice — an issue that doesn't get that much attention — and making this happen," Haidri says. 

Smith notes that at the same time MCYJ is changing gears, so is the youth justice system itself.

"It is moving away from the tough-on-crime era, and the policies that governed during the '80s and '90s, to the realization that young people who get into trouble are still children," he says. "You have to acknowledge that in order to help them be successful in addressing whatever issues or needs brought them in front of the courts or law enforcement in the first place." 

With courts making a shift toward therapeutic, rehabilitative relationships with young people, and improving engagement with family members, MCYJ is advocating for best practices. 

"Just like any other helping profession, the youth justice system is an ever-evolving system," Smith says. "You are always finding better ways to serve kids without harming, and instead helping, them. Our goal is to continue that evolution."

More information on MCYJ is available on the organization's website

Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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