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Ask Judge Garcia how to change juvenile justice practice in Michigan. He's done it.

Jan 16, 2015

Ingham County Circuit Judge Richard Garcia
Credit Ingham County

As we were prepping for our special on juvenile justice, we had a chat with one of our guests, Scott Leroy from Ingham County's juvenile justice programs. We wanted to know  how the Lansing area ended up with some pretty innovative programs for kids who get in trouble with the law. 

Leroy  told us the changes date back about 13 years when county residents voted to pass a millage to create more funding for evidence based practices in their juvenile justice system. If that sounds like a hard case to make to voters, it was. Leroy says a lot of the credit goes to Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Richard Garcia, who he said went door-to-door personally making the case to voters. 

Host Jennifer White had a conversation with Judge Garcia about why he thought the millage was necessary, what he did to get it passed and how it has shaped Ingham County's programs today. (You can hear the whole thing above.)

Garcia blamed his quest on basically being overeager. "I was a new judge" he says. "Of course when you're new you ask questions and you keep your eyes open,"  he continued. "It was clear to me that we really didn't have enough resources to get the job done. Our youth center was woefully overcrowded, treatment options were limited."

Garcia also believed that treatment would make a difference. "These kids are no different from my kids. They just have different circumstances that need to be addressed in a straightforward way," he said.

But convincing voters to tax themselves more to do something new took some work, according to Garcia. He said quite a few county judges spent about a year showing a more tailored approach could work.

They set up a special truancy court to divert kids from probation and juvenile detention and they ended up lowering high school drop out rates. And then, of course, there was the door knocking. Garcia jokes, "You know it's non-partisan but of course you tell Republicans you're going to hold these kids accountable and you tell Democrats we want to provide more services to families. You put it anyway you like it."

The voters ultimately dedicated just under 4 million dollars a year for evidence based juvenile justice work. Garcia and others in Ingham county say they are serious about not "just throwing money in the air to see if things would work," but using a data-driven approach. 

"You have to trust in the data and in the evidence," he says. The county brought in Edward Latessa from the University of Cincinnati and William Davidson from Michigan State University to help them build their programs.

Those programs include the Ingham Academy, a high school for juvenile offenders. Garcia says that project makes sense because data showed many area young offenders were in trouble because they were, as he puts it, "disconnected from their school day." The county also runs a skill-building program with Peckham Industries and provides lots of Aggression Replacement Training for court involved youth. 

So far the programs have worked to reduce juvenile crime and recidivism across the board by 15%. Garcia says kids that graduate from the Ingham Academy have only a 2% chance of committing a crime again after two years. Because the program is so successful it's increased the amount of state, instead of local, dollars the county can work with.  "Every time we make an investment in programing that reduces the amount of time a kid would be in out-of-home care, the state has to match that money." Garcia says.

As to why more counties haven't adopted Ingham's approach to juvenile justice, Judge Garcia says he has no idea. But he does say, "I think our voters in Ingham County got it right. I think that they know that when you invest in kids when they're 14 and 15 that we don't need to build more prisons."