Detroit Justice Center plans spring opening


By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Racial justice attorney Amanda Alexander’s career has taken her from New York to South Africa, but it was when she returned to her native Michigan in 2013 that she found herself on the cusp of one of the biggest endeavors in her life.

“Four years ago I founded the Prison and Family Justice project at the University of Michigan Law School where I taught and worked with family members who were caring for children of incarcerated parents,” Alexander said. “I was seeing how these families were really being shut out of a lot of economic development efforts so I decided to apply for local and national funding to establish the Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit, that will work to get these families over the barriers they face.”

To that end, Alexander, who will serve as executive director of the center, applied for and recently received news that a $600,000 grant from the Detroit-based McGregor Fund would be awarded to the center, slated to open this spring.

“McGregor wasn’t afraid to be our first local funder,’” Alexander said. “They were excited and came on board because they saw the value and need for this.”

In a press release announcing the grant, McGregor Fund President Kate Levin Markel echoed Alexander’s sentiments

“For years, the McGregor Fund has heard from social service agencies that the majority of their clients face material hardship because either a family member is currently incarcerated, or they themselves were formerly incarcerated and face residual legal barriers to restarting their lives. We have been looking for an opportunity to support comprehensive, civil legal services that offer the necessary specialization for very-low income families of incarcerated persons and returning citizens. “

In addition to the McGregor award, an equal grant was received from the New York-based Novo Foundation along with a smaller one from the Echoing Green Foundation, also in New York, Alexander said, noting that the center has a cost of $2.8 million over three years.

“We’ll be looking to partner with various law school clinics and we’re open to forming pro bono relationships with local law firms,” Alexander said. “Our clients will come from the strategic partnerships that I have built over the last couple of years, plus we are hoping to collaborate with the Michigan department of Corrections on a number of issues.”

Not only does Alexander bring years of professional experience to the nascent Detroit Justice Center, but she also has personal knowledge of what families with parents in prison encounter.

It was Alexander’s own experience as a child of an incarcerated father that set her on a positive trajectory, as she is quick to point out, that was sustained by strong support from her family and school.

“What was key for me was I had great family support. My grandmother helped my mother when my father was away and I had an elementary school teacher who encouraged me to write letters to my father,” Alexander recalled. “Now, I have a lifelong relationship with my dad.”

A Yale Law School grad with a doctoral degree in history from Columbia University, Alexander draws on her experience and education to help Michigan’s children and families who are impacted by their loved one’s prison sentences.

“Women serving prison time in Connecticut were losing their children as a consequence of their sentence because they didn’t have the information they needed,” Alexander said. “This was a population that was not being served so, along with two classmates, I co-founded the ‘Women, Incarceration and Family Law’ project at Yale Law School that deals with how child welfare and the prison system intersect.  That was the model I brought home to Michigan.”

Alexander said the Detroit Justice Center model will focus on community lawyering, giving lawyers the ability to build up the power and capacity of individuals, communities, and base-building organizations, integrating a “just city,” agenda that concentrates on the effect mass incarceration has on a city’s well-being.

“The Detroit Justice Center will provide community lawyering services, create economic opportunities, and pilot ‘just city’ solutions that cities across the country can use,” Alexander said. “I realized that we couldn't build affordable cities without addressing mass incarceration, so that’s why I'm putting forward a framework that combines a solution for both, a ‘just city.’”

Alexander is steadfast in her commitment to incorporate the “just city” concept into the new justice center as part of her plan to provide services for Detroit’s children of incarcerated parents.

“There is a narrative out there that kids of incarcerated parents are destined for prison,” Alexander said. “But there are all kinds of good outcomes for the kids who have the support they need.”