Michigan State University research supports Michigan bipartisan bill reform in juvenile justice system

May 8, 2024 - Brandon Drain

On December 12, 2023, Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist signed a first-of-its-kind, bipartisan legislation transforming Michigan’s juvenile justice system and investing in diversion and re-entry services to better position Michigan’s youth for successful adulthoods. 

This reform goes into effect on October 1, 2024, and includes several changes. Such changes include requiring courts to adopt evidence-based practices -- like administering screening tools and risk and needs assessments. These changes should lead to, “more desirable outcomes, increased opportunities for alternatives to detention with more funding for community based-programming, and almost a complete elimination of juvenile court fines and fees,” said Ashlee Barnes-Lee, assistant professor at Michigan State University’s School of Social Work. 

Barnes-Lee is an interdisciplinary, action researcher whose research focuses on juvenile legal system reform, with a specific emphasis on promoting racial equity and strength-based approaches to assessing and treating justice-involved youth.  

“In my community-driven research, I partner with juvenile court administrators who are interested in co-developing strategies to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and improve outcomes for the youth they serve,” said Barnes-Lee. “This new legislation broadens my opportunity to partner with courts looking to be trained in juvenile risk and needs assessment, analysis of existing data, as well as those interested in evaluating their programs and services.” 

“This bill signing accelerates the implementation phase of a statewide collaboration that began with Lt. Governor Gilchrist’s leadership and the hard work of partners on the task force, and Michigan courts are ready for this challenge,” said Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement.  

One of the ways Barnes-Lee wants to better serve justice-involved youth is by implementing more strengths-based, Juvenile Risk-Need Assessments (JRNAs) for treatment and rehabilitation.  

This approach aims to strengthen the widely implemented Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) model – which has a deficits-focus, as it postulates that targeting youths’ risk factors when developing court treatment plans is the most effective way to reduce likelihood of future delinquency. While risk factor detection is important and effective, many scholars, including Barnes-Lee, have criticized its overall efficacy for not placing a stronger emphasis on youths’ strengths, assets, or protective factors.  

Criticism of deficit-focused models has led to more research in strength-based models.  

“Strengths-based approaches to treatment and rehabilitation for justice-involved youth is important because it destigmatizes youth, increases optimism among juvenile probation officers, and could theoretically lead to more accurate predictions of future delinquency,” said Barnes-Lee. “Strengths-based approaches may also be particularly beneficial for youth of color, and other historically marginalized youth, who are perceived more negatively, and are overrepresented in the juvenile legal system.” 

In 2020, Barnes-Lee published two manuscripts detailing the development of a strengths-based tool called Protective Factors for Reducing Juvenile Reoffending (PFRJR). This tool was adopted by a Michigan juvenile court and has been benefiting youth on probation in that county for almost 10 years.  

The bill reform gives Barnes-Lee, and other Michigan researchers, the opportunity to partner with juvenile court administrators to provide evidence-based practices to better serve justice-involved youth.  

“Countless youth and families have unfortunately been harmed by our juvenile legal system. I believe it’s important for us to focus on both prevention and reform. I am proud of the work that Michigan lawmakers and community advocates are doing to advance justice and equity in our state. Although there is much work to be done, we are moving in the right direction.”