Law scholar envisions end to mass incarceration

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By Safiya Merchant
The University Record

Years ago, it became clear to Amanda Alexander that it wouldn’t be possible to build a Detroit that works for everyone without addressing mass incarceration.

Citing research indicating that about half of all adults in the U.S. have had an immediate family member incarcerated for at least one night, Alexander, says incarceration contributes to oppression and inequity in society.

The Detroit Justice Center was her solution.

Currently a senior research scholar at the law school, Alexander founded the center in 2018 to address mass incarceration from three angles: “defense, offense and dreaming,” she says.

Along with serving as a legal clinic for Detroit residents and those who are incarcerated, the center provides a forum for community members to imagine a society that moves beyond incarceration and finds other ways to support families and promote healing and justice.

The Detroit Justice Center builds on the work Alexander started at U-M, when she held faculty appointments in the Law School and LSA’s Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and taught courses on law and social justice.

At U-M, she founded the Law School’s Prison & Family Justice Project, which served families divided by incarceration and the foster care system. She also represented clients through U-M’s Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, which worked to prevent the unnecessary entrance of children into the foster care system.

But over time, Alexander says, PFJP’s work felt reactionary — providing temporary solutions to deeply entrenched societal challenges.

“This felt like very defensive work, like it was this last-ditch effort to hold families together,” said Alexander. “As a lawyer, I wanted to think about how to much more proactively help people.

“I wanted a place where we were working on the root causes of problems but also meeting people where they were and providing immediate services and supports.”

The Detroit Justice Center, with offices based on Washington Boulevard in downtown Detroit, is Alexander’s answer to that challenge.

The defensive line of work at the center lies in its legal service practice, where staff attorneys help residents address the consequences of court involvement, such as assisting in restoring suspended driver’s licenses and addressing court fines, fees, tickets and outstanding warrants.

By removing these barriers, the center’s clients can stay out of jail and hold onto their jobs, stable housing and families.

The center also runs a re-entry legal service pilot in four state prisons that offers legal services to individuals who are a few months away from release in order to prevent recidivism and ensure their success after prison.

For offense, the center’s economic equity practice provides legal support for Detroiters’ visions for their neighborhoods, such as collaborating with returning citizens to start small businesses and developing community land trusts.

Finally, the center’s Just Cities Lab serves as an incubator for ideas, providing opportunities for residents to express their visions of what it means for society to move beyond mass incarceration, and instead make investments in social goods like education and housing.

“There is a lot of talk across the country right now of ending mass incarceration, tearing down jails and prisons, cutting the prison population,” Alexander said. “But there is less talk about what we are building instead to deal with the root issues of harm, violence, poverty, substance use, mental health issues.

“I see this as we’re building out what does the abolition of jails and prisons look like as a presence,” she added. “Not just an absence of jails and prisons, but what are all the things we need to build instead?”

Along with making space for others to dream, Alexander’s center is also piloting efforts to reimagine the support system society provides for those who have experienced violence.

In a partnership with Detroit Life is Valuable Everyday — a program based out of the Detroit Medical Center-Sinai Grace Hospital — Alexander’s center is assisting in piloting supportive housing for young men who are healing from gun violence.

“When you look at the numbers, it’s often young black men (ages) 15-34 who are experiencing the most violence in our country,” Alexander said.

“So what would it truly mean to center their needs and to center their healing? And I think it looks like trauma centers like this, supportive housing, where you can really have a holistic solution that can address violence and harm and interrupt what can become further violence, further incarceration.

“The existing system of our courts is not equipped to do anything except respond in a punitive way or to respond with incarceration, and it does not actually promote healing.”

Looking forward, Alexander said she sees the center’s work as helping people to “be brave enough” to imagine what society could look like if it moved beyond jails and prisons.

“I want us to be part of bringing about the end of mass incarceration and really helping people figure out what it means to build a just city,” Alexander said. “Figuring out what it would mean to have cities where people feel safe in their neighborhoods, where people have what they need in order to thrive.”

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