Changing the Juvenile Justice System through data analytics

dark haired woman with mask with Justice sign walking along a crosswalk

Written by Kayla Grant

In March 2022, the Michigan Center for Youth Justice approached the Ginsberg Center with a support request emerging from a recent tragedy. On April 29, 2020, an incident at a youth residential treatment center in Kalamazoo caused the death of 16-year-old resident Cornelius Frederick. After throwing a sandwich, Cornelius was restrained and held down by at least six staff members for more than ten minutes; he died two days after admission to the hospital. In response, the Michigan Supreme Court imposed new limits on the use of handcuffs, shackles and other restraints on juveniles in September 2021.

The Michigan Center for Youth Justice (MCYJ) works to advance equitable youth justice policies and practices that protect young people. While the Michigan Supreme Court’s limitations on restraints represent a step towards safety for young people in the juvenile justice system, MCYJ contacted Ginsberg with the goal of gathering and analyzing data on how the new policy has actually impacted restraint use in juvenile centers. How frequent are incidents that involve restraints? What scenarios result in the use of restraints? In a typical incident, how long is a young person restrained? And most importantly, have these numbers trended down since the Supreme Court’s September 2021 decision?

Ginsberg’s Community Technical Assistance Collaborative offered exactly what MCYJ was seeking. CTAC matches community-driven projects with undergraduate and graduate students skilled in quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis. CTAC partnerships support nonprofits, schools, and governmental organizations in building capacity to carry out their work, tell their stories, and secure funding, while also meeting CTAC students’ educational goals. Since MCYJ was seeking numerical data related to the extent of restraint use in juvenile justice centers, the CTAC team’s expertise was an obvious fit for this partnership.

Bri Christy, Ginsberg's Technical Assistance, Evaluation, and Assessment Manager who coordinates CTAC, explained that it wasn’t initially clear how to fulfill MCYJ’s request – but that made the project an exciting one. While some data related to the use of restraints in juvenile justice centers was publicly available, it was scattered through individual incident reports that were difficult to understand holistically. CTAC’s first task was to figure out how to gather and organize this data to identify patterns in the use of restraints, such as the age or gender of the child involved or the location of the center. To tackle this initial obstacle, Bri called in a frequent CTAC collaborator: STATCOM, a graduate student organization connected to the Departments of Biostatistics, Statistics, and the Program for Survey Methodology. Much like CTAC, STATCOM (Statistics in the Community at Michigan) offers pro bono expertise to non-profit governmental and community organizations in the areas of data organization, analysis, and interpretation.

STATCOM Student Co-President Steven Salerno was able to generate a program that could automatically “scrape”--or gather–data from MCYJ’s individual incident reports into a single database. CTAC students could then code the assembled data, meaning that they developed and implemented a system for identifying patterns in the data. Bri noted that collaborating with STATCOM “was a really amazing example of how there are spaces on campus that could work together on different things while benefiting one partner.” STATCOM students brought their expertise in computer programming to the project, while CTAC students used their skills to organize, interpret, and communicate the data to MCYJ. “It's really great to see that cross-learning, and having the students learn to communicate with each other from different fields.”

Using tools developed by STATCOM and CTAC, the Michigan Center for Youth Justice plans to gather annual data on the use of restraints in juvenile justice centers in the hopes of advocating for further restrictions on this practice. They will be sharing their findings with Kids Count, a national repository for data related to youth; meaning that CTAC and STATCOM’s work will become a widely-accessed resource for anyone seeking juvenile justice data. Meanwhile, this January CTAC students will continue to process data and begin to create informational resources that MCYJ can use in their political advocacy on behalf of Michigan youth. 

“My hope is that we can continue to have projects that push students to think about some of those questions that classrooms don’t necessarily provide,” said Bri. “If you were doing this project in the classroom, you would be given the perfect spreadsheet…but instead, our students really have to think about where the data is and how to get it to where they need it to be.” MCYJ’s project represents the kind of work Ginsberg does best – creative problem-solving at the intersection of student learning and community priorities.

If you’d like to explore how CTAC’s data specialists can help your organization collect and understand data related to the programs or issues that matter to you, please reach out to [email protected].