By Stephen Wade, MUP, Health Equity Policy Analyst, Washtenaw County Public Health
Washtenaw County Public Health had heard the anecdotes about youth, particularly youth of color, getting arrested and those encounters leading to trauma, anger, financial hardship, and other intersections with the criminal justice system. Now, thanks to Michigan Power to Thrive (MPTT), MOSES, Human Impact Partners (HIP), and the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD), it has the data to prove it, the policy suggestions to change the outcome, and the coalition to advance the agenda.
According to “Reducing Youth Arrests Keeps Kids Healthy and Successful” and “Restoring Kids, Transforming Communities”, in Michigan, while the black youth arrest rate decreased from 2008-2013, black youth were still arrested three times as often as white youth. Another key finding: youth diversion programs exist in varying degrees in many counties in Michigan, but the diversion is often post-arrest. Also, the deeper a youth goes in the juvenile justice system, the higher their mortality rate.
Washtenaw County Public Health knew it needed to grow its Health Equity and Social Justice work and knew it couldn’t do it alone. Thanks to the leadership of groups like ISAIAH, the Healthy Heartlands network brought together local public health officials and community organizers from across the mid-west to gather as state coalitions, learn from and agitate each other, and identify intersecting issues that their respective skills sets could change to advance health equity.
Michigan Power to Thrive (MPTT) identifed mass incarceration as one of their two key issues. The local public health officials identified health impact assessments (HIA) as one tool that could help build the coalition, examine the data, and come up with policy prescriptions. MPTT reached out to the Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration (MI-CEMI), a statewide coalition that was already working on issues around diversion, sentencing, conditions of confinement, and re-entry. The two reports are a product of these partnerships.
There are achievable policies, programs, and funds that can greatly reduce the health inequities related to youth arrests. Some ideas are already being tested in southeast Michigan. The recommendations are to divert youth pre-arrest, train all agencies to be trauma informed and knowledgeable about youth brain development, require pre-arrest diversion by state law, and change state sentencing laws. No one said this was going to be easy. In coalition, it can be done.