Joshua B. Hoe interviews Amanda Alexander, Executive Director of the Detroit Justice Center
My Guest – Amanda Alexander
Amanda Alexander is a racial justice lawyer and historian who works alongside community-based movements to end mass incarceration and build thriving and inclusive cities. She is a Senior Research Scholar at University of Michigan Law School She serves on the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, Served on the national steering committee of Law for Black Lives, and is a board member of the Center for Constitutional Rights and is a graduate of Yale Law School and Columbia. She is also the founder of the Detroit Justice Center
Notes from Episode 90 Amanda Alexander
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A full transcript of Episode 90 of the Decarceration Nation Podcast
Joshua B. Hoe
Hello and welcome to Episode 90 of the Decarceration Nation podcast, a podcast about radically reimagining America’s criminal justice system. I’m Josh Hoe, among other things, I’m formerly incarcerated, a freelance writer, a criminal justice reform advocate and the author of the book “Writing Your Own Best Story: Addiction and Living Hope.” We’ll get to my interview with Amanda Alexander of the Detroit Justice Center in just a second. But first the news.
In just a few hours safe and just Michigan a nation outside we’ll be hosting a very special webinar featuring a formerly incarcerated moderator, a formerly incarcerated political candidate convener, and a panel of formerly incarcerated CEOs. The goal of this panel is to share stories of success. For too often when we see stories about formerly incarcerated people their story stories, highlighting failure or criminality, or suggesting that never-ending punishment and surveillance is justified, but many people returning from incarceration to make it difference in their communities, and some succeed even at the highest levels. This webinar is not about bootstrapping, but it is about sharing stories of experience, strength, and hope as well as success. We hope you will join us. All you have to do is go to the safe and just Michigan Facebook page at noon eastern standard time and watch the live stream. If you can’t watch live, check out the safe and just Michigan YouTube channel and just a few days afterward, and you’ll be able to watch a recording of the entire webinar.
Okay, let’s get to my interview with Amanda.
Amanda Alexander is a racial justice lawyer and historian who works alongside community-based movements to end mass incarceration and build thriving and inclusive cities. She’s a senior research scholar at the University of Michigan law school. She serves on the Michigan Joint Task Force on jail and pretrial incarceration and served on the national serving committee of law for black lives. She’s also a board member of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a graduate of Yale Law School and Columbia. And she is the founder of the Detroit Justice Center. I should also probably mention that she’s a valued friend and a great poet. It’s a great pleasure to welcome her to the show. Hello, Amanda. Welcome to the Decarceration Nation podcast.
Hi, Josh. It’s great to be here.
Joshua B. Hoe
I always ask the same first question. How did you get from where you kind of started in life to where you are running kind of your vision of the Detroit Justice Center?
Sure. So I was born in Southeast Michigan in Southfield and was impacted by incarceration early in life. So my father was incarcerated when I was in elementary school, and it really shifted the course of my family. So my mother moved us across the state to Southwest Michigan to be closer to the support of my grandmother. And, you know, so I knew from early on the impact that mass incarceration has on particularly black families in the US I knew that eventually, it was something that I wanted to grow up and tackle. But for a very long time, it was too close to home. So I would say it was well into my 20s before I was even comfortable talking about my family’s experience and you know, extend had a great feeling of stigma and shame around it. And I went off to college and became a community organizer, student organizer, and I had the great honor of being mentored by some of the very best two organizers in the world.
So ACT-UP in New York and act up Philadelphia organizers who really taught me that social change comes about because people who are impacted by a problem force that change to happen. So they had been fighting in the 80s and 90s. They were tired of watching their loved ones die. aids, because the drugs were not coming to market fast enough. And so they knew that these drugs were not going to be available because people decided that they should be. But because people needed to occupy government buildings, and force these things to change. And so they taught me a lot about what it means to really bring about social change, how to have 1000 people turn out to rally, how to occupy government offices and all of that.
And then after college, I moved to South Africa, and learn similar lessons from working with the landless people’s movement there, and people who this was still within the first decade after the end of apartheid. So I moved there in 2003 for the first time and was working alongside people who were saying that this is not the democracy that we fought and that many people died for. We did not fight so that a quarter of people could be living in shacks settlements without running water or electricity. We did not fight so that, you know, AIDS medications would not be available to people, or that, you know, the land would still be held by, you know, majority-white farmers. And so, you know, they taught me powerful lessons about the fact that yes, you can have formal ends to things like apartheid, but that the fight for freedom would have to continue.
And so from there, I ended up starting a Ph.D. in history, because I felt that oftentimes activists are putting out fires without a deeper sense of the historical context. You know, that really drives problems. And so I think I overcorrected. And started a Ph.D. in history and ended up writing about the history of convict leasing and criminal laws and apartheid agricultural development, and then decided several years into that that it was time to go to law school and time to tackle the problem of mass incarceration in the US head-on and so I signed up when I got to law school. In my second semester, I enrolled in a detention human rights clinic. So that was a prisoner’s rights clinic there at Yale.
And so was working with clients who were confined in solitary confinement in Connecticut prison, the supermax prison there. And one of the projects that I worked on with two other clinic partners was doing some research for a book on women’s experience of incarceration. And so we were up, three of us went up to Albany, New York, and we’re interviewing women at a reentry house and asking them about their experience of incarceration. And towards the end of these interviews, we asked Okay, as law students, is there anything any legal needs, that the women were facing, that you think it would be that we could be abuse around? And every single woman said that they had known or had experienced women, thinking that they were going to be reunited with their children? And only to find out that their children had been taken into foster care, and in some cases had had their parental rights terminated permanently to their children as a consequence of their incarceration. So, you know, my, my stomach dropped when I heard this and it’s like, How the hell does this happen? Whatever, by bringing someone into a situation of incarceration, how is it that they can, you know, lose their family permanently. And so, we ended up launching a women incarceration and Family Law Clinic project, and for the next two and a half years, did a bunch of research into something called the adoption and Safe Families Act, which, you know, did really incentivize, you know, states to terminate or move to terminate the rights of parents who are going to be incarcerated for two years or longer.
And so we put together a guide for parents in Connecticut prisons and jails to be able to know their rights to their children. Hopefully to be To protect their relationships with their children. And then in 2013, I decided it was time to come back home to Michigan and really use that clinic project as a model for the prison and family justice project that I established at Michigan law school, and so was representing incarcerated parents at risk of losing your children. I was also working with families who, because of some contact with the court system here in Detroit, were at risk of being broken up. So I remember representing a woman who had done everything she was supposed to do to get her two children out of foster care. She had found stable housing, she had found a job she was no longer using substances. And yet the judge said, Ma’am, I’m not going to return your children to you because you have these outstanding warrants for traffic issues. And so this, you know, drove home the impact of when people think about things like outstanding warrants, they don’t necessarily think that it is standing between someone getting them and getting their children back. And so, you know, we spent a couple of mornings going around to the different courts and getting these warrants cleared. And we went back to the court and said, Can you please give her her children back. And that, you know, was a success in the end.
But it occurred to me this was back in 2013 when Detroit was about to file for the largest-ever municipal bankruptcy. And it was clear that the experiences of some of the clients that I was representing were completely left out of the conversation about the future of the city. And what was happening is that people were not having full conversations about the impact of incarceration, and of policing, on the future of the city and on the future of the ability of everyone to be able to be part of the future of the city. So I spent about five years doing relationship building with organizers in the city, representing clients who did several participatory action research. To understand the impacts of incarceration on families, and found things like the average family, when they have a loved one incarcerated spends about $13,000 on court costs and attorneys fees alone. And for the families in our study that was about the same as the median annual income. This is a year’s worth of income being wiped out, because of criminal justice, contact. And people. We’re not really talking about this. And so the idea for the Detroit Justice Center started to come about I was working with a lot of attorneys and our national conference of black lawyers chapter doing legal representation for Detroit activists on a voluntary basis. And over time, the work that I was doing and you know, along with others, was starting to feel very defensive. You know, all of these last-ditch efforts to, you know, kind of keep families together once the foster care system and prison system had collided on them. And so it became clear that there was a new For what we call defense, offense and dreaming, and combining those things under one roof, and providing legal support to Detroiters who have been doing visionary organizing work for decades, and that has become the work of the Detroit Justice Center.
Joshua B. Hoe
So for people who are kind of in the organizing field or are starting to think about ideas, kind of like what you did, what advice would you give them for, you know, as they’re starting their own kind of create their own vision around some of these same ideas?
Yeah, I would say everything is a collective process. You know, I think in my own journey, it has been really powerful to be able to understand that we can turn our personal pain into collective courage and that that is how people change the course of history. I think we’ll get into this later, I served on the governor’s Task Force on jails and pretrial incarceration, and at the outset of those taskforce meeting As public meetings, I shared my own story of experiencing my father’s incarceration. And I said it’s not because I wanted to share it because it makes me unique. But because it is so common. So a study came out a couple of years ago that found that half of the people in the US have had an immediate family member incarcerated. So, you know, so many of us are impacted by this. And yet we think that you know, we’re the only ones or that, you know, it stays at this point of silence or shame when really it is our power. And it is understanding that it is not just, you know, you or your loved one that is being stopped by the police or being jailed and not being able to afford cash bail, but these are systemic problems, and that we need to join forces and tackle together.
Joshua B. Hoe
And when you just to jump back to what you said originally when you were young Even then, and you’re dealing with your father’s incarceration. Did you have I mean, did this how did you First experience, kind of the problems of incarceration? How did you start? How did that start to manifest and kind of build toward what did you see first? What did even as a child that was wrong with the system?
Yeah. So I would say that I had a great deal of support from my mom from my grandmother. I remember I had an elementary school teacher who, you know, would let me support me in writing letters to my dad every Friday. So go into the corner of the room, and I would get to write letters. And that is, you know, just a powerful example of what can happen, you know, in order to be able to keep families together. I think, too often the opposite happens. So I hear from, you know, teachers or social workers who just throw their hands up and aren’t sure. You know, how to support, you know, kids who are impacted by incarceration. When I was still running the prison and Family Justice Project, I would hear from, you know, Detroit Public School officials who say It seems like half of the kids in our classrooms have a parental figure incarcerated, and we don’t know what to do. There are no supports for these young people. And the problem is that you know when there is no support, and there’s no conversation about it, you know, judges and foster care workers will, you know, will kind of buy into this myth that it’s not worth maintaining a relationship between the incarcerated parent and their child, or that, you know, good riddance, this person this, you know, the parent shouldn’t be in their child’s life anyway, which couldn’t be further from the truth in so many situations. And so, I think I had an early powerful example back in the 80s. Of what it can mean to actually maintain family ties, you know, in spite of incarceration.
Joshua B. Hoe
You know, we’ve had and I think it would be easy to say a really challenging last five or six months. I feel like a lot of national band-aids have been ripped off. Unfortunately, some people are trying to put them back on. This is a big question, but you’re a historian. What’s your take on that? This kind of unique moment we find ourselves in as a country right now.
Yeah, I think it’s an incredibly powerful moment. And that is because of the powerful organizing that has been happening, you know, not just in the last several years, but for generations and generations, 400 years of the black liberation struggle in this country. So, what we’re seeing now, you know, people have been in the streets for two months straight now, since the police killing of George Floyd. And what has been very clear from the outset of these protests is that people are done with false solutions. So, you know, ever since people have been taken to the streets in 2013, and in 2014, you know, in the wake of other police murders, you know, they’re they were the solutions that were on offer. So you know, it was about, you know, body cameras or implicit bias training or more diverse police forces, which all that does. In the end, was funneled billions of dollars into local police departments, but did not get at the root problem, which is policing itself.
And so the powerful thing is that the movement for Black Lives has never stopped organizing, even though I think in the popular media, they’ll see the protests flare up each summer, you know, as someone is killed by police and people take to the streets. But the thing is organizing isn’t happening across the country all along, to lay the groundwork for things like divesting from police departments and reinvesting and other things. And that’s why you’ve seen some really big changes happen relatively quickly this summer. So within a matter of weeks in Minneapolis, we saw Minneapolis kick police out of its park system, the University of Minnesota kicking police out of its campus, you know, youth organizers, getting police out of their schools, and then ultimately the city council voting to disband the minister Annapolis police force. And I think it is really just so important to emphasize that, you know, yes, those changes happen quickly. But it was on the back of many years of continuous organizing. And so, organizers have been ready, you know, to say that we are crystal clear that it is time to defund and abolish the police and that we’re done, you know, tweaking around the edges, or, you know, trying to implement reforms that ultimately just increase the legitimacy and the budget of police forces.
Joshua B. Hoe
Yeah. And I think, as you just said, one of the really defining moments of the last several months has been literally 10s and hundreds of thousands of people in the streets all over the country. making calls like “defund the police.” This call, in many ways, came from abolitionists and abolitionists work I know you consider yourself an abolitionist. So first, what does abolition mean to you? And then how do you approach the Work of abolitionism
Yeah, so my thinking around abolition is really deeply indebted to people, particularly black feminist queer folks who have been experimenting and trying to practice with the work of abolition for decades now. So you know, people like Beth Richie, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Andrea Richie critical resistance, so many others Angela Davis on that we could name and I have found a really powerful framework, you know, in Ruthie Gilmore’s idea of abolition as not just the absence of police, jails, and prisons, but abolition as a presence of all of you know, the range of institutions that are going to be needed in order to prevent harm in the first place, and then address the roots of it should it happen and so, you know, I really see abolition not just as what we’re tearing down or ending I think that there’s A lot of talk in the criminal justice movement nationally about, you know, cutting the population or ending this, you know, slashing that. And let’s talk about what we are building up, and how we’re building a radical call for care, that we’re building communities that are actually safe. And just because people have all the resources that they need, and, you know, basic needs, like their affordable housing, like health care, like restorative justice programs are in place. And so that has really been a guiding framework for our work at the Detroit Justice Center.
And so when I talk about, you know, defense, offense, and dreaming, it is about this work of, you know, going on defense with our legal service practice, and our bail fund in partnership with the bail project, to say that yes, it is absolutely important to meet people’s immediate needs right now. So, you know, our staff attorneys, remove legal barriers like suspended driver’s licenses, Or they address fines fees and tickets. We’ll see clients come to us with 14 traffic-related warrants across six different counties because 70% of jobs are located outside of the city of Detroit and so they have to keep driving on a suspended license. And that is a pit that is very hard to get out of once your attractiveness cycle. Um, so we, you know, serve people and have served hundreds of clients and met those immediate legal needs. Then we go on offense with our economic equity practice. And that is really part of what I see as abolition as a presence. Our attorneys are helping community groups established community land trust. So there’s a lot of talk in Detroit for many years about wanting to start community land trust, and our attorneys have helped three organizations now establish those.
There’s also work that we’re doing in partnership with others around setting up worker-owned cooperatives, and I really think to have us as helping to translate our client’s freedom dreams into reality. So one of our clients is a community organization that bought up 14 homes around their community center and came to us because they wanted a legal solution in order to keep the neighborhood affordable for generations. And so they’re thinking maybe a community land trust. And they said, Oh, yeah, we also want to turn one of the homes into transitional housing for men coming back from prison. And we want to put community solar over the whole thing. And we want to start a small business corridor as well, that have cooperatively owned businesses. And so that, to me is a freedom dream.
You know this is a brilliant solution for neighborhood affordability, you know, to fight the forces of gentrification, re-entry, housing, climate justice, you know, worker-owned anti-capitalist solutions. And so this is this beautiful thing that it’s our role as attorneys to just help translate that and quantify that and support that and I think it’s, you know, far more brilliant than ever Think Tank or group of attorneys could have come up with on their own. So that’s the work of our economic equity practice. And then our just cities lab is where we dream. And so the idea of the just cities lab was really, you know, borrowing several years ago from comrades and the sanctuary city movement and thinking about, you know, it’s not just what we’re tearing down, but how can we proactively create cities where people can thrive? And so what that looks like in practice is, you know, working with partners, to create restorative justice networks in the city of Detroit, and to, you know, listen to the work that people are already doing to keep their community safe, and ask them what additional support would you need in order to take this work even further. It means things like creating supportive housing with clients of ours who are healing from gun violence. That’s in partnership with an excellent organization in Detroit life is valuable every day. So, that, to me is all abolitionists work. It is about understanding that yes, there are people here and now who are being put through the wringer by the criminal punishment system, and doing everything we can to fight for them and their families, but also really honoring the dreams that people have for how we could arrange society differently, and providing support for those. So that to me is what abolitionist work looks like in practice.
Joshua B. Hoe
So I remember sitting and watching television and seeing right after this was all kind of taking shape before the streets and everything and I see, you know, the mainstream folks on media shows start talking about defunding the police and almost the first people I saw, defining what that meant, in many cases ended up being police people, which was very strange to me, and a little backward and try and problematic and I think what happens a lot of times when a lot of these ideas that people have worked So long for reach the mainstream, there’s almost an immediate backlash, almost like an empire strikes back moment. So, what is your take on kind of the backlash and this kind of like, the notion that everyone who’s protesting is, you know, really a criminal and where we find ourselves kind of in relation to addressing police in policing in the face of this backlash?
Yeah, I mean, I think that if there’s one thing that the last several years have taught us is that the system will always try to adapt to become the solution. So we have seen this across the board, you know, police said, oh, retrain us will become social workers. Or, you know, even you know, recently there have been, you know, calls to embed social workers in police departments, which I think, you know, only does the work of further entrenching the police and growing their budget. And I think it you know, points to the fact that police have been able to monopolize the conversation. on public safety for far too long, and instead, we need to be thinking about what actually keeps communities safe, who is more qualified to be having conversations about safe communities? And I would say, you know, there are systems, you know, like public health, like education, that actually do the work of safety. I mean, I think, you know, I would much rather hear from teachers and people who are doing the work of de-escalating violence in their own communities, people who are, you know, doing the work of violence interruption already, you know, that have nothing to do with the police, which is ultimately armed patrols that are sent into situations and where they often escalate violence and bring lethal force, when what was needed was care and support.
You know, we’ve seen the figures on you know, the rates at which people who are you know, disabled, including having mental health issues are killed by police, people who ultimately need care when it comes to substance use disorder or things like that. And instead, they’re met with armed patrols. And so, you know, I think it’s absolutely clear that there need to be other people, you know, who are defining what it means to create safe communities. And that has been much of our work at the Detroit Justice Center in the past couple of years. So we held a youth design summit back in 2018. And this was targeted at the fact that Wayne County was attempting to build a brand new jail 2280 adult beds and 160 cages for young people 160-bed use jail, and it was very clear that the community had not been consulted, about you know, do we need to be building a new jail or how else could we be spending the 530 $3 million that will be spent on this? And so we said okay, let’s ask young people yeah. People in the city who have been organizing against the school to prison pipeline, and we partnered with organizations like to forward that are now fighting for police free schools and Detroit, Detroit summer, teen hype. And we pulled together a day-long workshop where we asked them, How could we spend this half a billion dollars in ways that would make you feel safe and valued and empowered. And not one of these young people said We need more jails or more police. And instead, they were full of ideas and their imaginations just you know, went to all sorts of incredible things. So the top idea was to build a mental health spa. And the young people had designed this down to what would be the most soothing pink colors on the walls. And you know, we were all that is a mental health spa. And this girl, you know, is saying, Well, I think that this would be a place where you could go and you could talk through whatever is making you anxious, whatever is stressing you out whatever’s on your heart and there will be places for individual therapy. And group therapy, to deal with underlying trauma and just to relax and feel cared for and to be heard and have your needs attended to, you know, other people said, If I had that money, I’d give it away to my neighbors, because I know that if they’re okay, and they can meet their needs, then my family and I will be safer. They said, pay our teachers and fix the lead pipes in our schools, you know, fix the water pipes in our schools. They said, create affordable housing and make sure it’s accessible for my mom’s wheelchair. They wanted accessible, affordable housing. They said build Regional Transit that will get us from one side of the city to the other, build restorative justice centers. And the fact is, we could build these things. For the cost of the jail. We crunched the numbers and you could renovate and modernize every Detroit Public School. We could house everyone in the city of Detroit who does not have housing. You know, we could provide you know, childcare support. earned income in earned income tax credits, all sorts of things that would actually meet people’s needs, rather than going down the path of building more cages.
Joshua B. Hoe
And you were Where are we now in the fight on the Wayne County Jail project.
So it is ongoing. I’ll back up and provide some context here. So people have been fighting the idea of a new jail for a very long time for many years in the city. This new jail was started, the construction started, you know, 10 years ago, and it resulted in half bill jail, have built jail downtown Detroit, that people deemed the failed jail. So the county, you know, built a jail initially on Gratiot Avenue. And soon the costs were, you know, running beyond budget and so they halted it. So there is this half-built jail for many years. And organizers you know, would periodically meet at that site, when you know, Conversation turned to finishing construction and saying again and again, why are we building more cages? When you know people don’t have clean running water in this city? Why are we building more cages when we’re shutting down schools, or when there’s, you know, mold in our schools.
So people all along have been questioning and you know, the fact that we’re building this new jail and demanding that resources go elsewhere. And so, several years ago, Dan Gilbert and rock ventures got involved and bid on that on the new jail contracts because the Gratiot a site was next door to the Greektown casino that Dan Gilbert our resident billionaire owns and so this was a prime piece of real estate downtown. And so at the time, he had wanted to build a soccer stadium downtown and so he said, You know, I if I can have this prime piece of real estate downtown, I’ll build your jail elsewhere. So I’ll split the cost with the county for this jail project. And so I don’t know that Dan Gilbert wants to be in the jail building business, but he is. I know that he wanted this prime piece of real estate downtown. And I think the jail is kind of an afterthought. But so what has happened is the jail project has moved forward. Rock ventures got that real estate downtown, and people have continued to protest it. And I’ve continued to say, why are we building this, you know, jails over 2000 beds, when the jail population for a while on any given day was about 1600 people, and over half of the people in the jail were their pretrial, many of them because they couldn’t afford bail. And so you know, people are saying why, why are people there? How many people are dealing with underlying issues of mental health? How many people need substance use treatment? How many people are there because they can’t afford cash bail, and those were never questions that the county was actually giving.
They were just continuing with this logic back from two 10 and saying, well, we started this jail, we have to finish it. And so, you know, county executive, Warren Evans said, you know, we are finally solving our jail problem by building this new jail. And I think if you think of your problem as a jail problem, then, of course, jail is the solution. But if you think of your community’s problems, as you know, underlying issues of mental health needs of poverty, of lack of affordable housing, then you’re going to come up with very different solutions. And so, just to fast forward even though this has been an ongoing fight over the past couple years against the jail, we, you know, have been part of an in an effort of several different organizations that have been trying to get people out of the Wayne County Jail in the face of the coronavirus. And so the population has dropped dramatically in the last several months. So as I said, the population is often around 1600 people that had come down to about 1400 people, and now it’s closer to 800 people The jails, and many more people need to be released. You know, we are still fighting hard to get people out in the face of COVID-19. But the fact that you know, we are still on track to build this 2280 bed jail even when the population is down to 800. And dropping is just, you know, even more astounding these days. And so, you know, if you look around to other jurisdictions, they’re recognizing that okay, the population has dropped with COVID. Why on earth, you know, would we need to continue to build more jails?
And if you look next door in Macomb County, they actually scrapped their plans for a new jail back in April, when they realized that the population had dropped and that it did not make sense to go to taxpayers and ask for hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent on a new jail when it was clear that communities had underlying needs that were not That and that the COVID 19 pandemic has really laid there. And so I think that this is a powerful moment for us to I think we are all revisiting our priorities and saying, you know, we absolutely need to be shrinking the size of, you know, the police budgets, we need to be shrinking, you know, our investment in jails. And, you know, saying we do not need to be moving forward with building this jail when we could be reinvesting in all the other things that actually keep communities safe. So I would say that the fight continues here in Detroit.
Joshua B. Hoe
You know, it’s interesting that you kind of put it that way, because, you know, the big pushback and all these things from folks always seem to be around kind of violent crime and safety. Kind of the best example of that is the current kind of Trump Trump commercial going on right now. Where you hear ominous music and then someone calls the police and the police won’t answer that. The phone, which seems to me, kind of an interesting opportunity to say what happens, you know, what, what, what is the vision that you have for a world in which the police don’t answer the phone where they have been defunded to a great degree where there aren’t prisons and jails? What does that world look like?
Yeah. So I think that there are many layers to this question. And I think you know, first of all, is understanding some of the findings of the jail and pretrial Task Force over the past year. So one of the key findings was the fact that so many people are locked up because of suspended licenses and failure to appear in court. So half of the criminal cases in the state of Michigan are traffic-related. So our jails and our courts are absolutely full of poor people who are driving on suspended licenses. You can’t make their court date cannot pay the fines and fees that pile up. And so you know, I think that we can absolutely reduce policing and jails by decriminalizing a number of things by stopping the practice of suspending a driver’s license, all sorts of things that the task force recommended. And that Detroit Justice Center went even further in our report, highway robbery, you know, recommending all sorts of ways that we could overhaul on the system of profiling and criminalizing black poor drivers.
But, you know, I think you’re absolutely right. You know, many cases also do involve, you know, harm and violence. And we absolutely have to, you know, stare those down and understand that, you know, even in violent cases, incarceration doesn’t get at the root issues. So I, you know, I think that they’re all going is like common justice in New York City. I know you’ve had Danielle Farid on the podcast, who has talked about, you know, the ways that they are using restorative justice, even in cases of violent felonies, and that 90% of the survivors are victims of violent crime who they call to offer the option of common justice to 90% of them elect to be part of that process. And, you know, often it’s because, you know, Danielle will say that, you know, survivors are pragmatic, and they know that incarceration doesn’t work and then often ripples out further harm. That, you know, our system as it’s set up, the criminal legal system is not truth-seeking. It is not set up to heal harms. It is not set up to give people a coherent story about why this happened to them, or to give them any sense of, you know, answers or closure that would help them address the underlying trauma of happened. And so you know, people through common justice have been very open to restorative processes that would make sure that you know, the survivors or victims are driving these processes. They’re getting some of the answers and the healing that they need. And they’re doing that without, you know, incarceration.
Danielle talks about the fact that the main drivers of violence on an individual level are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and poverty. And she points out that our main national response to violence, incarceration has those same features of shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and poverty. And so I think that’s a really useful way of understanding the fact that we are responding to violence with more violence, and that it’s time to actually understand what are the root drivers of violence and harm in our society and how do we address those? I think it’s also recognizing that you know, The majority of crimes over half of you know, you know, harms go unreported by police. So already many people, you know, police are not, you know, really doing an effective job of preventing or addressing harm Once that happens, and that there is so much room for community-driven solutions to actually keep people safe. And people are already doing this work. So, here in Detroit, I’m very excited by work that young people are doing to create youth-led healing hubs. And so what they’re doing and they’re doing this through COVID right now is they’re meeting on a weekly basis and creating and holding space for each other, to talk about the underlying, you know, the trauma that they experienced as young people growing up experiencing violence in the city. And I can just think about, you know, 1015 years from now, the harm that this will prevent by offering a space for people who have experienced trauma to address their trauma and be supported. And so I think, you know, if we can invest in healing hubs across cities, if we can invest in, you know, de-escalation efforts, if we can do things like 42 forward are calling for in Detroit, they’re calling for police free schools, and instead investing in things that actually keep young people safe, training people and peer to peer de-escalation, training people in restorative justice. If we invest in those types of things, I think that we can prevent all sorts of harm. And, and it will be a vast improvement on the system that we currently have that allows so much violence and harm to proliferate, and only double down on it when it happens.
Joshua B. Hoe
You go a little while ago, you talked about the jail’s Task Force just a few hours ago here in Michigan or Speaker of the House leader of the Senate and some other notable legislators had a press conference to announce that all the first and second waves of legislation that came out of your recommendations from the task force have been introduced. Do you have any kind of thoughts about this?
Sure. So being on the task force has been a powerful experience and promote primarily. So because we had these public meetings and you know this, Josh, because you read just about all of them. I was, yeah. Yeah, across the state. So we traveled between August and December last year, from Traverse City up in northern Michigan, to Grand Rapids and Detroit and Lansing. And we had hours of the public comment period. And we really encourage people to come out and share their stories, you know, either of their own personal experiences of incarceration, or of domestic violence, or having a loved one with mental health issues. And people chat and they really came forward and were so incredibly generous with their stories and their experiences. It was really powerful. It was incredibly powerful and, and to be able to see that people are hurting in similar ways across the state. And that, you know, people are hurting because of, you know, the deep investment in jails, in the cash bail system, you know, and the lack of supports when it comes to mental health care or health care in general.
And so, you know, I remember at the first meeting in Traverse City, there was a man from Northern Michigan who talked about his life being completely derailed when he was ordered to do a drug test several times a week, even though this was not a drug offense that he was facing, and he didn’t have transportation and he had to hitchhike into town several times a week in order to do drug testing. And he had to pay $10 each time he was tested, and ultimately, he could not keep up with this regimen of pretrial drug testing, and so no longer hitchhike into town and keep his job. So he lost his job, which meant that he lost his health insurance. And then had he lost his housing. And so just hearing directly from people whose lives have been, you know, completely upended, because of the system that, you know, the system of pre-trial courts and jails that we have set up. And so it was just hundreds upon hundreds of stories like this. You know, it was, you know, some unlikely folks as well, you know, we heard from sheriffs and police officers and others, who, you know, could not believe the system that they were presiding over because it was just completely nonsensical and cruel.
And so I think also one of the most powerful things it was important to me as a task force member, that we not have a governor’s Task Force on jails, without listening from people to people who are in jails right now. And so I insisted that we have one of our public meetings at a jail and that was something that the taskforce staff I was able to arrange and so we went back in October to the Genesee County Jail in Flint. And we had a roundtable there with currently incarcerated people. And on that day that we visited 95% of people in the jail had not been convicted of anything. 95% and as part of our Roundtable, we met with a man who had been in for over four years pre-trial. And so you know, he had young children, you know, his six-year-old son he had not seen or touched or held since he was two years old when he went in four years previously, the jail has cut off contact visits between incarcerated people in their loved one so he was only able to see him through a video monitor, and so on, ultimately, after the task force visit this man, you know, had his day in court and was acquitted in the end after four years. So, you know, I think Again, what was so powerful about being on the task force was hearing people’s stories, and also hearing the momentum for change, and their calls for change and their solutions and their visions for how we could invest differently.
And so I think that you know, the task force recommendations, I have been very clear, they will reduce some harm, but they do not go far enough. You know, I think that in order to really create the change that we need in the state, it’s going to be what it always is that brings about sustainable change, and that’s people-power. And so I think that we succeeded in using this past force as a movement-building opportunity. And having, you know, strong advocates from organizations like Michigan liberation, we the people, Michigan, our Detroit Justice Center, clients and others come out and you know, and use it as an opportunity to build power and momentum. But that yes, it’s going to be important that this legislation gets passed. past and that it is as far-reaching as possible. But the fight is going to continue. It doesn’t go far enough in the sense of, you know, if there needs to be much more widespread mobilization, it’s not enough to turn certain things from misdemeanors into civil infractions. Because, as we know, at the Detroit Justice Center, oftentimes our clients wind up locked up on things that were not, you know, criminal offenses in the first place. But, you know, they might have missed their court date, or they had fines and fees pile up. And so it’s still possible to end up incarcerated off of a civil infraction. But we also need mechanisms to reinvest cost savings. You know, once we shrink the jail population, we need to take the next step of shutting down jails and then reinvesting that abundance in you know, the things that people actually need. You know, and I think that you know, the Detroit Justice Center in our highway robbery report has made recommendations that go even further Rather than the task force recommendations, so, you know, things like, you know, being sure to eliminate all current outstanding traffic enforcement debt. So it’s very clear now that that’s that, you know, people are accrued under this unjust system, you need to just be wiped clean entirely. We need to recall all open warrants for failure to appear or failure to failure to pay. And we need to understand that, you know, these, these changes need to be retroactive for people who were sucked up and what is a deeply unjust system?
Joshua B. Hoe
Well, this is the Decarceration Nation podcast in the season, I’ve been asking guests if they have any kind of innovative ideas that we haven’t already talked about for Decarceration. Do you have any other ideas from all of these? You sound like you’ve had a lot of really great meetings with community members. Do you have any other of these ideas that you’d like to share now?
Yeah, so I would say the important thing is really Starting with what people are already doing in our communities. So, again, I was talking about the young people in this city who are creating youth-led healing hubs. You know, there’s an organization called Detroit safety team that has been training up Detroiters to be able to, you know, keep each other safe at events so that you do not need to have the police involved in things like, you know, concerts or other gatherings. They train people up in de-escalation and conflict mediation and ways to, you know, keep each other safe. I think that this is such an important aspect of things if, you know, we need to skill up ourselves and understanding you know, if we, you know, as a workplace or as a community or as a neighborhood are not going to call 911. What are we going to do instead, if something is happening and what skills do we need in order to address conflict or de-escalate conflict?. So I am thankful to the many people who have been, you know, trying to do that work already and, you know, work through those very difficult issues. You know, there’s the, like I said, Detroit safety team, there’s the transform harm org site that Mario Cava and others have created, that, you know, really gives people tools for, you know, mediation efforts for accountability for transformative justice processes. So I think, you know, it’s really about us figuring out how do we need to be in community with each other? How do we need to shift our relationships? There’s a guy that went out recently that I saw where people are saying, Here are four steps to giving an effective apology, that can be really meaningful. You know, I think it’s these basics, these basic building blocks of relationships that you know, we’re not always you know, equipped with And that can make the difference in terms of, you know, whether harm continues to compound itself, or whether we are able to move forward with an opportunity for healing.
And so I think it’s incredibly powerful that there are all sorts of community groups who are creating, you know, those solutions and experimenting what it means to, you know, be in a better relationship with each other and to keep each other safe. So I think, you know, yes, there are large structural issues here. You know, we worked last summer, and we brought the participatory budgeting project to town to train folks up and what it means to, you know, shift money from things like police departments or jails into things that communities would decide together should be the priorities. So, you know, I think that there’s a lot of work to be done at the level of shifting budgets, you know, the level of changing laws, but there’s just as much work be done in terms of getting skilled up in the skills that we need in order to have more healthy relationships with each other and to keep each other safe.
Joshua B. Hoe
I always asked the same last question, why did I mess up? What question or question Should I have asked but did not?
Let me think about this.
Joshua B. Hoe
Take your time, it’s fine. It’s the humility question. I always like to know what I should have covered.
Joshua B. Hoe
Well, I’m always glad to hear that but I always like to at least ask.
Yeah, I mean, one thing I would say is, you know, I think that you know, Detroit is just the full of people who’ve been coming up with visionary solutions for a very long time. And so that a try justice that are we really see our part as lawyers who are helping to shore up the solutions that have Then under threat, because, you know, the Duggan administration, Dan Gilbert, others in power have not only, you know, not valued the wisdom of longtime Detroit residents, but they have actually, you know, dispossessed people and forced them out of the city. And so a lot of our work, particularly through our economic equity practice has been, you know, helping clients who have been, you know, doing the work of urban farming for a very long time. So, you know, Detroiters when grocery stores left, people didn’t want to leave, but they figured out that they needed to find ways to feed themselves to grow food, build resilient local food systems. And so, you know, part of our work has been making sure that people can hold on to that land and continue to be decades ahead of the curve when it comes to urban agriculture. You know, people are doing incredible work around restorative justice and healing around worker-owned cooperatives. And so I really see our work as you know, shoring up the business solutions that the traders have been coming up with. And, you know, helping them remain and ripple out to other cities. Because if COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that, you know, capitalism, racist capitalism has destroyed so many lives and we need really deep fundamental shifts. And none of this is News to Detroiters. They have been dealing with water shutoffs evictions, foreclosures, you know, paging for a very long time. And so they also have solutions, you know, that can be useful, I think, to the rest of the country and the rest of the world. So it’s an honor as a set of movement lawyers to be able to just support these Community Solutions.
Joshua B. Hoe
Awesome. And thanks so much for doing this spinner, as always a real pleasure to talk with you.
Thanks so much, Josh. Thank you.
Joshua B. Hoe
Thanks again. Talk to you soon.
Joshua B. Hoe
And now, my take:
I was just reading a hot take by the New York Post one of the world’s most unethical publications about homelessness. Their take was to lionize Rudy Giuliani’s war on the homeless and decry the attempt to provide homeless people with support and lodging. The headline was “The Upper West Side rebels in the face of de Blasio’s Homeless Plague.”
I would have hoped it was a piece calling out the policy of New York liberals turning against homeless human beings. But sadly, no was a celebration of how Giuliani dealt with homelessness.
And how did Giuliani treat homeless people? Here’s how the Gotham has put it in a 2015 article. Let us not mince words, Giuliani cleaned up New York’s homeless population during his time as mayor by arresting them, sticking them in underserved shelters and axing their community service programs. Advocates for the homeless sued Giuliani multiple times over his failure to provide proper medical treatment to homeless children. And benefits to homeless adults. But most important when it comes to your post, people are not a plague. They are human beings.
We construct people first through language and when we construct a group of human beings as if they were a disease, we are giving moral permission for that disease to be eradicated. The New York Post is taken the side of rich people living in million-dollar apartments against the people with the least in our entire society. They’re supporting, removal, and endorsing eradication. The New York Post is a shameful excuse for a newspaper.
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