Kalamazoo students meet with lawmakers at the state capitol to discuss juvenile justice reform

LANSING, Michigan — Kalamazoo students advocating for reform of the juvenile justice system spent the day at the state Capitol.

They are part of a pilot program through Western Michigan University’s Lewis Walker Institute: Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows.

On Wednesday, the group, made up of middle and high school students, walked the halls of the Capitol and met with lawmakers.

They relayed personal stories and data in hopes of change within the juvenile justice system.

“I’m passionate about it because I’m involved in it myself, so I’ve seen where it’s like, ‘Why are we doing this when it should be like this?'” Arrianna Jentink said. Bristol, an 11th grader at Kalamazoo RESA. Intensive learning center.

Arrianna became involved in the juvenile justice system when she was just 14 years old. Now she is 17 years old.

Another man’s son was even younger when he got involved.

“My son at the time, he was nine. He had gotten into some trouble and they tried to send him to a juvenile home,” said Dontray Hemphill Sr., also involved with Blocks United, Parents United.

People like Arrianna and Dontray are among those pushing for change within the system.

Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows began meeting in November 2021. The program is funded by a grant from the Public Welfare Foundation.

The group said they visited Lansing to lobby on two specific issues.

“We wanted to focus on disrupting the school prison pipeline. In particular, we wanted to address the age of reason in the state of Michigan. Currently, the age of reason is 7, which we believe , is absolutely too young for students to get involved in our juvenile justice system,” said Dr. Luchara Wallace, director of the WMU Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations.

The other advocates dissolving the juvenile fines and fees process.

“You have minors who can sometimes rack up an average of $80,000 in fees and fines, so they’re still held accountable to pay them. If they don’t pay them by the time they turn 18, it becomes something that accrues interest and can also lead to warrants and other repercussions that will follow them in the long run,” Dr. Wallace said.

The students met with various Michigan lawmakers, providing data and sharing stories that will be forwarded to the Michigan Juvenile Justice Task Force.

The group said it hopes to see policies created and a program that will encourage other students across the state to also advocate for change, offering them alternatives that may be better for them in the long run.

“Now that he knows what could have happened to him, he’s completely turned it around, and I think sometimes that’s what kids need. Not always behind bars and locked up. Sometimes rehabilitation can start in homes with the parent and with the community,” said Hemphill Sr.

This is the first year of the pilot program. The group hopes to grow and make even more progress in the second year.

Click here for more information on the WMU Lewis Walker Institute: Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows.

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