LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – The state legislature has begun the process of reforming the juvenile justice system. 

With 20 bills introduced and making their way through the process, supporters point to benefits such as an increase in state funding to counties to prevent young people from ending up in jail. The bills grow out of a report and study issued last year. That report included 30 proposals to improve the system.  

Read more: Full State report could lead to juvenile justice reform

The focus of the legislative changes is rehabilitation rather than punishment.  

Last summer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrest joined a bipartisan team to introduce plans to improve resources for youth navigating the criminal justice system in Michigan.  

“We must build a system that values accountability as well as justice but also prioritizes hope,” the Democrat said. 

Lawmakers are now working to make some of those recommendations law.  

If the legislation passes into law, it will pair increased reimbursement for counties to shore up their juvenile justice programs with risk and mental health assessments to be used in informing judicial decision-making. The funding could also expand detention options or increase home services. 

Democrat Kara Hope (D-Delhi Twp.) chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee. She says the focus on rehabilitation will reduce costs borne by the taxpayers in the long run.  

“If you give the child what they need earlier on, to maybe consider their mistakes, to consider how they respond to the future, they’ll be better equipped to deal with life as an adult,” Hope says. “And their chances of returning to the criminal justice system are much lower.” 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Ingham County Prosecutor John DeWane support the bills.  

But State Senator Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) says he wants some changes to the legislation. He serves as the minority vice chair of the Senate’s civil rights, judiciary and public safety committee. 

Runestad thinks the current policy debate is driven by emotions. He says he worries more youth will slip through the system and escape accountability with jail time.  

“What about the people when we get it wrong, are harmed?” He asks. “And that’s my focus is making sure we are not doing harm.”  

He says he’s not opposed to all the legislation. However, he is working to learn how repeat offenders will be handled in the juvenile justice system. 

Backers, like Hope, say the legislation will provide needed accountability and understanding to pair with victim and public safety interests. It will, she says, allow the system to address each youth as an individual with unique needs. Not a monolith.  

Only half of the bills have made it out of committee. Hope adds that the package only makes up 6 of the more than 30 recommendations presented.