Alex Rossman: A personal perspective for policy action on youth justice

October 25, 2021 10:19 am

Getty Images

I had my first formal interaction with the police when I was 14 and got caught for a particularly extensive and expensive act of vandalism. The incident was thankfully settled out of court, and while I was ordered to pay restitution, I was able to stay out of the juvenile justice system. 

At the time, I thought this outcome was thanks to good luck and a good lawyer. But I now understand that my situation was significantly benefited by my racial and socioeconomic privilege, and other kids in similar situations have ended up with much different outcomes — and longer lasting repercussions. The recognition of the inequity and unfairness of that fact is something that drives my passion for juvenile justice reform today.

Luckily, awareness of the need to improve and reform our juvenile justice system continues to increase, and the opportunity for policy change remains ripe.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has named October 2021 as Youth Justice Action Month, continuing the recognition of youth justice that she’s done every October of her time in the governor’s office. And for those who are into the parlance of proclamations, there’s a noticeable nuance: While October 2019 was “Youth Justice Awareness Month,” the governor has declared October 2020 and 2021 “Youth Justice Action Month.”

And she’s been backing it up with additional actions of her own. This summer, Gov. Whitmer created the Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform, which will focus on analyzing Michigan’s juvenile justice system and “recommending proven practices and strategies for reform grounded in data, research, and fundamental constitutional principles.” The Task Force is a diverse, bipartisan group that includes members of the executive branch, legislature, judiciary, and juvenile justice community, including several of the Michigan League for Public Policy’s partners. The League is also part of a group of advocacy organizations focused on youth justice and youth development that will work with the Task Force.

The League and our Kids Count in Michigan Project have been focused on reforming the juvenile justice system to better support Michigan kids and families, both through improved data collection and policy reform. We were proud to be a partner in pushing for Michigan to “Raise the Age” of juvenile jurisdiction and keep 17-year-olds out of the adult criminal justice system as much as possible. We also helped advocate for the improved and automated expungement of juvenile records as part of a number of positive criminal justice reforms passed last legislative session

The current legislative session includes a number of other positive juvenile justice reforms that the League and our partners would like to see passed. 

As we say a lot at the League, we are all more than our worst mistakes, especially those mistakes we make as a youth. I can personally and emphatically attest to that.

– Alex Rossman

The Michigan Center for Youth Justice is leading the charge on House Bills 4987-4991, important bipartisan legislation to eliminate juvenile court debt. Juvenile justice debt assessments and collections are inconsistently imposed, fiscally ineffective, exacerbate poverty for indigent families, and disproportionately impact families of color. In addition, the practice of fining youth limits their ability to find work, minimizing the pool of young talent available to join the workforce.

Michigan policymakers also continue to pursue ways to better support youth, especially youth of color and students with special needs, by interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. While the state’s changes to the “zero tolerance” school discipline laws in 2017 were a start, there are still many issues with state school discipline policies that need to be addressed. 

The YWCA of Kalamazoo and its partners around the state have been working with legislators on the Strong Attendance For Every Student (S.A.F.E.) Act to end school push out, especially for youth of color, due solely to truancy or chronic absenteeism. Senate Bills 68 and 69 would promote equity in school discipline and attendance policies by prohibiting suspension or expulsion as punishment for a student’s absence from school and requiring annual reporting on student disciplinary incidents, broken down by race, gender, and ethnicity. 

Last month, a group of lawmakers also introduced a package of bills to reform the school disciplinary process. The legislation seeks to prevent and reduce students being removed from school, while ensuring that their due process rights are protected during disciplinary actions. 

As we say a lot at the League, we are all more than our worst mistakes, especially those mistakes we make as a youth. I can personally and emphatically attest to that. And while it is valuable to lift up juvenile justice, as the governor has recognized, it is important that we move beyond awareness and into action. 

The governor’s Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform and a number of bills before the Legislature are striving to do just that, and we at the League are looking forward to working with them to continue to bring about real, positive change to promote racial equity and support all kids in the juvenile justice system.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Alex Rossman
Alex Rossman

Alex Rossman is external affairs director for the Michigan League for Public Policy. Alex previously worked for Democratic Central Staff for the Michigan Senate for almost 10 years, serving as the deputy communications director and, previously, as press secretary and communications advisor.