Program seeks alternatives to youth incarceration

Posted at 6:52 AM, Jan 04, 2021

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A program that seeks community-based alternatives to the practice of locking up youth offenders or placing them in rehabilitation facilities outside their homes has come to communities in Michigan.

The nonprofit Youth Advocate Programs is working with Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services on the effort in Saginaw, Mecosta, Osceola, Ogemaw, Roscommon, Isabella and Clare counties.

Funding from Ballmer Group to Youth Advocate Programs Inc., is helping with startup costs.

At any given time, there are 10 young people in the program, which serves up to 30 in a year, according to Soleil Campbell, juvenile justice policy and systems manager with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Program participants are referred to or committed to the department for care or supervision. Risk factors for them include prior abuse and neglect, trauma, poverty, substance abuse or poor performance in school.

“Youth are much more successful when they are able to be served within their community,” Campbell said. “Many who have delinquent behavior are experiencing some sort of family discord. Serving them within the family system allows the provider to help the whole family function better.”

The program focuses on youths who at moderate to high-risk of being placed in residential facilities or in need of intensive community-based services. Local Department of Health and Human Services staff are working with county courts on the program, Campbell said. Neighborhood-based advocates work with youth, parents and guardians.

“There is more consensus than ever that youth incarceration is part of a failed system — that it’s dangerous, results in poor outcomes and is very expensive,” said Jeff Fleischer, Youth Advocate Programs chief executive. “At the same time, launching new community-based youth incarceration alternatives remains a challenge because youth justice systems allocate most of their budgets to paying for detention, residential placement and youth prison.”

Through a partnership with Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, Youth Advocate Programs used Ballmer Group funding to launch six startups across the U.S. in 2020. It represents the largest expansion of the nonprofit’s alternative-to-youth incarceration model in its 45-year history. Program grants for one year were provided to probation departments, juvenile courts and juvenile justice programs in California, Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina and Illinois.

Like these states and counties, Michigan is expected to rely less on out-of-home placements, be innovative in delivering services and implement community-based programming. Youth Advocate Programs is hiring and training neighborhood-based advocates to work with youth, parents and guardians.

Research published in 2014 by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice showed 86% of participants avoiding re-arrest up to a year after completing Youth Advocate Programs. Nearly 90% remained in their communities.

“In order to reduce the reliance on incarceration, systems must invest in effective community-based services and approaches that meet the needs of youth and families,” said Michael Umpierre, director of Georgetown’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.