'Debt Free Justice' for Michigan youth, families: Lt. Gov. Gilchrist signs sweeping reforms
Package of bills eliminates juvenile court fines and fees, boosts supports
DETROIT — In a major victory for Michigan's children and families, young people will no longer be subject to burdensome juvenile court fees and fines and potentially life-altering debt, among other reforms included in a package of landmark bills signed today by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.
The bipartisan package of new laws — Senate Bills 428/429 and House Bills 4636/4637 — mark a welcome shift in the state's approach to juvenile justice. Among the notable reforms, set to go into effect October 1, 2024, Michigan's juvenile courts will no longer assess fees and fines to youth or their families, and instead direct young people to avenues that promote rehabilitation. The new bills also bolster supports for youth involved in the justice system.
Youth justice advocates joined with young people and families across Michigan to celebrate the momentous and sweeping reforms, which are the result of years of advocacy efforts. Some young people and their families have been charged tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fines and fees, with collection efforts lasting for decades, simply because they came into contact with the juvenile justice system.
The Debt Free Justice campaign, coordinated by a collection of organizations and individual advocates, has worked closely with policymakers in the state for more than five years to eliminate juvenile court fees and fines. These fees and fines have historically hit Michigan's poorest communities the hardest, forcing families to choose whether to pay the court or purchase necessities like food, rent and medicine. Rather than encouraging rehabilitation, the fees and fines have instead had the harrowing effect of guaranteeing that many youth remain under the thumb of the court for the rest of their lives.
"This is a huge win," said Hannah Benton Eidsath, a Senior Director with the National Center for Youth Law, which co-coordinates the Debt Free Justice Campaign. "Families in Michigan reported hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt simply for their involvement in the juvenile legal system. With these reforms, children and families will no longer be burdened with debt that can preclude them from housing, jobs or educational opportunities for decades afterward. Hopefully Michigan can serve as a model for other states to take healthier, better-informed approaches to youth justice."
Eliminating juvenile court fines and fees in Michigan has been a top priority for advocates, particularly after a 2019 report from the National Center for Youth Law found that the practice was inconsistently applied and disproportionately harmed Black, Brown and Indigenous communities.
"Every community has young people, for example, who were trapped in this system because they did not have enough money to pay to get out of it," Lt. Gov. Gilchrist said during a bill-signing ceremony Tuesday. "That's why we have bills in this package that eliminate fines and fees. Because debtor's prison should not be a thing for adults nor should it be for children."
The reforms in the bill package, which was recommended by the state's bipartisan Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform, are wide-ranging. In addition to the elimination of juvenile court fees and fines, the package of bills will:
- Increase the Michigan Child Care Fund to 75% for in-home services, including community-based supervision and services;
- Require the use of a risk and needs assessment for each young person before disposition;
- Increase financial support for pre-arrest diversion programs through the Child Care Fund; and
Expand the State Appellate Defender Office to include appellate service for juveniles.
"These transformative policy reforms mark a momentous shift in Michigan’s approach to juvenile justice,” said Jason Smith, Executive Director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice. “It signifies our state’s shared goal of constructing a more just, evidence-based and equitable system that places the well-being of our youth and communities at its core.”
History of Advocacy
The reforms are the latest progress in Michigan toward Debt Free Justice.
In 2021, the Michigan Center for Youth Justice and the National Center for Youth Law successfully campaigned for the elimination of juvenile court fees in Macomb County. Not only did the Macomb County circuit court announce that year that it would stop collecting such fees, it also wiped out $84 million in outstanding juvenile court debt.
That debt relief was life-changing for many young people and their families, allowing them to pursue opportunities that had otherwise been economically closed off to them.
Deshawn Leeth, a Michigan-based Transformative Justice fellow with the Debt Free Justice campaign, credits the Debt Free Justice movement with bringing communities together.
"It represents family, it represents love, it represents that we want the best for our young people," he said of the initiative. "And we're fighting for it — and we'll fight for it until our last breath."
The Michigan Center for Youth Justice (MCYJ) is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to youth justice reform in Michigan. Grounded in restorative justice, racial equity, and community integration, the organization advocates for policies and practices that support trauma-informed, racially equitable, and culturally responsive community-based solutions. MCYJ aims to foster a fair and effective justice system for all of Michigan's children, youth, and young adults. For more information, visit miyouthjustice.org.
The National Center for Youth Law centers youth through research, community collaboration, impact litigation, and policy advocacy that fundamentally transforms our nation's approach to education, health, immigration, foster care, and youth justice. Our vision is a world in which every child thrives and has a full and fair opportunity to achieve the future they envision for themselves. For more information, visit www.youthlaw.org.