This story was co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.
The Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office has told the Michigan Court of Appeals that it supports the release of a 15-year-old high school student who has been in a juvenile facility since spring when she violated probation by not completing her schoolwork.
The response from Prosecutor Jessica Cooper’s Office on Wednesday came after an attorney for the Michigan teenager, known as Grace,* asked the Michigan appellate court on Monday to hear the case on an emergency basis and order her released immediately from the facility where she has been held since May 14. Cooper is up for reelection in a primary next week.
“We are very thankful to the Oakland County prosecutor for their concurrence in this matter. It is clear they see the injustice in Grace’s continued detention,” said attorney Jonathan Biernat, who represents the Birmingham Public Schools student. He asked the appellate court to issue its opinion by Aug. 3. “We are confident that the Court of Appeals will grant our request and allow Grace to return home.”
Cooper’s office pushed for Grace’s detention earlier this year, but now it has repeatedly said it supports sending her home to her mother. At a hearing last week, the presiding judge of the Oakland County Family Court Division, Mary Ellen Brennan, denied a request from Biernat to release the teenager, saying the girl will benefit from the mental health treatment she receives at the Children’s Village detention center. Both Grace and her mother have pleaded for her to return home.
Grace’s case, detailed in a ProPublica Illinois investigation this month, has sparked protests in Michigan, including one Wednesday night, and has drawn widespread attention. Members of Congress, state lawmakers and Birmingham Public Schools board members, among others, have called for her release, and more than 300,000 people have signed an online petition.
The Michigan Supreme Court’s oversight agency is reviewing the procedures in the case.
On Wednesday, six federal lawmakers asked the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the case, saying they have “grave concern” about the decision to detain Grace during the COVID-19 pandemic. They asked the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate and for the Justice Department to review the judge’s order to detain Grace and her denial to release her last week. The lawmakers asked for a response by Aug. 7.
Grace is Black, and activists and others, including her mother, say her case highlights systemic racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. From January 2016 through June 2020, about 4,800 juvenile cases were referred to the Oakland County court. Of those, 42% involved Black youths even though only about 15% of the county’s youths are Black, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis. Research also has shown a disproportionate number of youths of color are incarcerated in Michigan.
“While Grace has faced many personal challenges in her young life, it was her lack of completion in online coursework that the judge cited as the definitive reason for sentencing Grace to juvenile detention,” the request from the lawmakers states. “This is simply unacceptable.”
The letter was from Michigan Reps. Andy Levin, Debbie Dingell, Brenda Lawrence, Haley Stevens and Rashida Tlaib, as well as Rep. Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts. They wrote that the case “points to deeply entrenched systemic issues” and cited data that shows Black girls with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from
Grace, who has ADHD and receives special education services, struggled with the transition to online learning and fell behind when her Michigan school stopped in-person classes because of COVID-19. Two weeks after being put on probation in April, Grace’s probation officer filed a violation of probation charge against her, citing incomplete schoolwork.
“Particularly as schools ready for the upcoming academic year, we must be clear that our children should be provided with additional supports and services, they sho…