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

Posted at 5:50 PM, May 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-04 18:44:54-04

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

They're part of a pilot program through Western Michigan University Lewis Walker Institute: Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows.

On Wednesday, the group, comprised 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 am involved in it myself, so I have seen where it’s like, ‘Why are we doing this when it should be this way?’" said Arrianna Jentink-Bristol, an 11th grader at Kalamazoo RESA's Intensive Learning Center.

Arrianna got involved in the juvenile justice system when she was just 14 years old. Now, she's 17.

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

"My son at the time, he was nine. He had got into a little bit of trouble, and they tried to send him to a juvenile home," said Dontray Hemphill Sr., who is also involved with Blocks United, Parents United.

People like Arrianna and Dontray are some of the people pushing for change within the system.

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

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

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

The other advocates to dissolve the process of juvenile fines and fees.

"You have juveniles that can sometimes rack up an average of $80,000 worth of fees and fines, then they’re still held responsible for paying those. If they don’t pay them off by the time they turn 18, it becomes something that accrue interest and can also lead to warrants and other repercussions that will follow them long term," said Dr. Wallace.

The students met with various Michigan lawmakers, providing data and sharing stories that will be passed along to Michigan's Juvenile Justice Taskforce.

The group said they're hoping to see policies created and a curriculum that will encourage other students across the state to also advocate for change, providing alternatives that may be better for them in the long run.

"Now that he knows what could have happened to him, he has completely turned it around, and I think that is sometimes that is what the kids need. Not always behind bars and locked away. Sometimes the rehabilitation can start in the homes with the parents and with the community," said Hemphill Sr.

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

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

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