Social worker serves in key role at Justice Center


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Jason Smith, LMSW, began his career in the field of juvenile justice as an intern with the Ingham County Circuit Court’s Family Division, giving him an introduction to both social work and juvenile justice.

“As an intern supervised by a great juvenile court probation officer, I was able to observe and participate in court hearings, and meetings with justice-involved youth and their families,” he says. “My supervisor, who was also a social worker, showed me juvenile courts can successfully achieve a balance of public safety with rehabilitation without having to sacrifice the dignity and respect of the youth under their supervision.

“As a social worker, I really enjoy helping people overcome barriers to living a healthy, fulfilling life. I’ve had the opportunity to directly serve others and now advocate social change through macro-level work.  My area of focus in social work has always centered on youth who are either currently involved or at risk with becoming involved with the justice system. While the focus is narrow, I feel this work is my way to make the world a better place.”

Now serving as youth justice policy director at the Michigan Youth Justice Center in Ann Arbor, Smith thoroughly enjoys the legislative process, from the point of working with bill sponsors to introduce legislation, to preparing/delivering testimony at committee hearings, and educating legislators on issues to garner support for passage.

“I feel privileged I’m able to speak with state and local policymakers about the ways in which the policies and practices that govern the state’s justice system may be improved to increase public safety and better serve youth,” he says.

By far the most memorable moment for him at the MYCJ was last fall’s passage of Raise the Age legislation, set to take effect October 1, 2021. It will allow 17-year-olds to participate in age-appropriate treatment, requires parental notification at the time of arrest, provides funding to juvenile courts to implement the policy change, and prohibits the overwhelming majority of 17-year-olds from being held in adult facilities. The legislation requires that youth under age 18 be housed separately from adults and prohibits transportation in the same vehicle. It also allows for community-based treatment and gives greater discretion to judges and prosecutors.

“It was a long, multi-year fight, but I feel honored to participate in a historic justice reform that is going improve the lives of Michigan’s kids,” Smith says.

After graduating from Michigan State University, Smith worked as a direct care provider at a transitional home for adjudicated girls, then as a case manager within Wayne County’s juvenile justice system.

“Both of these experiences, working directly with justice-involved youth, provided a baseline understanding of how the Michigan juvenile justice system works and also helped develop an effective ‘advocacy lens,’” he says.

“While I will always advocate for change that makes the justice system fair and effective, my experience working in the system showed me that there are good, hardworking people within it, who only want the best for the youth under their care and supervision. My work is to make sure the policies and resources that guide the juvenile courts’ work help serve youth to the best of their ability.”

While working on his Master of Social Work degree at the University of Michigan, Smith interned with the Washtenaw County Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative and the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD), recently renamed the Michigan Youth Justice Center.  Before joining MCCD in 2014, he co-managed a youth diversion program in Skokie, Ill.

“I was able to help some teens who other adults may have believed were ‘throwaway kids’ improve their academic standing develop career goals, and become thriving, productive adults,” he says, noting that includes attending college graduations.

“These experiences really showed me that with proper guidance and supports, youth will eventually age out of transgressive behavior and that the state and local policies and practices that guide the youth justice system should promote healthy transition to adulthood.”

In the past, Smith served as the lead researcher and co-author of “Restoring Kids; Transforming Communities,” a report the details the use of juvenile court diversion programs in Michigan.

Research shows that for many young people who get in trouble with the law, the best intervention is to repair the harm to the victims and to refer the youth to community-based treatment without court intervention, Smith notes.

“It reduces the likelihood that youth fall deeper in the justice system unnecessarily, and allows the juvenile courts to focus their limited resources on the youth who would benefit the most from court services and supervision,” he says. “Either through state legislative action or by working directly with local jurisdictions, I’m proud to work for an organization that prioritizes expanding informal court diversion programs across Michigan.”

Honored in 2011 with a Fellowship with the National Juvenile Justice Network, Smith participated in the Youth Justice Leadership Institute (YJLI) sponsored by the National Juvenile Justice Network. He called it, “one of the most impactful experiences” in his professional career, particularly because he’s often one of the few persons of color involved in youth justice policy talks in Michigan.

“In addition to receiving great mentorship from other, established justice reform advocates, the YJLI created a support system of advocates of color that I can rely on for support,” he says. “I was a part of the very 1st YJLI cohort in 2011, so now I have a very large family of amazing and accomplished alumni.”


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