New civil rights agenda taking shape in state Senate

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By MAGGIE GEORGE
Capital News Service

 LANSING – Expanding the state’s civil rights act to include gender identity and sexual orientation, advocating for juvenile justice and increasing transparency with Child Protective Services are priorities of the state Senate committee on civil rights.

The Democrats hold the majority in the Legislature for the first time in four decades. Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, the chair of the Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said the new session is an opportunity to accomplish what her constituents have been eager to see. 

Chang said she and other committee members will push to include sexual orientation and gender identity under the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

“In the public, there’s a large amount of bipartisan support for this issue,” Chang said. 

Chang also said that juvenile justice will remain a priority.

Residential facilities across the state are struggling to stay staffed enough to serve youth in trouble with the criminal justice system.

“Juvenile justice broadly is something that I’m hoping that we can really work on, and there were bills introduced in the prior term that just didn’t didn’t move,” Chang said.

In 2021, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created a bipartisan Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform. It made recommendations in July 2022.

The Michigan Association of Counties supports implementing the task force’s recommendations. 

Samantha Gibson, a governmental affairs associate at the counties group, said the association is working on bills influenced by those recommendations.

“The juvenile justice issue is incredibly vast and is layers upon layers of where the issue has started,” Gibson said. “We’re asking for the state to fund additional beds, which is to build additional facilities, then increase wages for staff or at least more funding to hire more staff.”

Chang said she is looking forward to bipartisan progress.

“A lot of criminal justice reform efforts have been actually very bipartisan, which is why I’m really excited to be chairing this committee. We have had so much really good bipartisan work on criminal justice over my past eight years in the Legislature,” Chang said.

The Democratic majority in the Legislature stands as an obstacle for the Republican minority, but the committee’s GOP vice chair Sen. Jim Runestad of White Lake said he’s worked with Democrats before to pass a “good bill” and hopes for reciprocal cooperation this year.

On another issue before the committee, Runestad said he wants legislators to have access to Child Protective Services’ case information while withholding the identities of minors to guard their privacy. Currently, those files are off-limits to lawmakers. He also said he doesn’t see the Democratic majority ignoring his efforts.

After hearing “horror stories” from constituents of how poorly Child Protective Services has handled their families’ cases, Runestad said access is important to assess whether legislation is needed.

Runestad said such legislation would provide additional protections to prevent situations that require Child Protective Services’ involvement.

“There’s so much to be worked on in this committee. More than any other committee,” Runestad said.