This post originally appeared in Bridge Magazine.
My job requires me to take deep dives into data and research on kids and families in Michigan. I spend much of my time becoming intimately familiar with mostly troubling information on how our kids are doing. I am, however, occasionally given hope when our policymakers prioritize the needs of kids, such as reforming zero-tolerance school discipline policies, investing in child care and funding programs that help schools with high levels of poverty. But when I look at the data and the trends over time, I have to ask, “Are we doing enough to ensure that all of our kids can reach their full potential?”
Our 2018 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book was released not long ago and helps us to answer this question. The report reviews data from 2010 to 2016 on 16 different measures of child well-being. The analysis does show us improvements in some areas. Our teen birth rate is down 33% and the number of students graduating from high school on time has also gotten better. But while child poverty rates have declined, more than 1 in 5 kids in Michigan still lives in poverty and many more live in families struggling to make ends meet. All in all, more than half of the 16 data measures have either worsened or stagnated statewide. I’ll also point out (again) that our state is in the bottom 12 nationally on education outcomes.
The new report also shows us that we are leaving behind groups of kids and families, particularly kids of color and those who are living in families with low incomes. Due to policies and discrimination, racial disparities have been created and maintained over time. The data reveal higher numbers of kids of color living in poverty, and their parents also do not necessarily have access to the same job opportunities that pay higher wages—and the educational opportunities that help secure these types of jobs.
Policymakers have the power to prioritize policies that will help reduce disparities to make Michigan a place where all families thrive. While there are many policy changes needed through a comprehensive approach, one important strategy that is currently before the Legislature would be to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction. This is a bipartisan bill package that overwhelmingly passed the Michigan House of Representatives last session and is currently sitting in the House Committee on Law and Justice (chaired by Representative Klint Kesto of Oakland County).
Michigan remains one of four states that automatically charges 17-year-old kids as adults in the criminal justice system, putting kids at greater risk of abuse and violence and hindering their chances at rehabilitation and a stable future. Youth of color are disproportionately impacted with the most recent data showing that 53% of 17-year-olds entering the state adult corrections system were kids of color while they only make up about 23% of the 17-year-old population in Michigan. Youth who are incarcerated lose about 5.5 months of educational hours per year compared to the average high school student. In addition to less access to education, youth charged as adults carry an adult criminal record, which creates enormous barriers to employment—and long-term financial security. This also impacts the potential of the state and local communities to generate revenue through taxes and businesses’ abilities to hire workers.
To answer the question I began with, the answer is, “no.” Michigan lawmakers can be doing more to help Michigan kids, and they have concrete legislation before them to do it. But time is running out, as the raise the age bills need to be passed before the 2018 session is over. The research and the data couldn’t be clearer: Kids and families fare better when they receive the support that they need. We know that children in the juvenile justice system receive age-appropriate treatment and have better outcomes than kids sent to the adult system. The governor and state legislators have the opportunity to change the lives and futures of our young people. We hope you’ll join us in calling on them to invest in our youth by raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction.