Cooley panel focuses on facing incarceration rate discrepancies



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Panelists at Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Martin Luther King Day event agreed on one thing: not all black men are missing in action.

Monday’s audience  at the Black Law Students Association (BLSA)  panel presentation provided ample proof of that.

The central question BLSA asked panelists to consider — “Where are all the black men?” — was intended to draw attention to the alarming number of African-American males who are incarcerated, and the discrepancy between the incarceration rates of those men and men of other races and ethnicities.

But panel members and some of the students affiliated with BLSA who spoke wanted to make it clear that there is a substantial percentage of African-American men who are present and contributing.

Dickinson Wright attorney Pat Miles, first to speak, related a telling story about a black man who turned his life around as a case in point.

Miles, who in 2010 ran unsuccessfully to represent the Grand Rapids area in the U.S. House of Representatives, started out with an off-the-cuff response to being introduced. He said that his classmate at Harvard, Hill Harper, had gone on to star in one of the CSI television shows. Whenever Miles would see publicity about Harper, he would wonder — tongue in cheek — why Harper listed his age as so much younger than Miles. Finally, Miles said, Harper had to own up to his real age when information was released about another of their classmates, Barack Obama.

On Monday, Miles focused on telling the story of an African-American former inmate that Hope Network had helped. Miles is on the board of Hope Network, which exists to “empower people with disabilities or disadvantages to achieve their highest level of independence. “

The subject of Miles’s story, Juwan, had faced many “strikes against him” early on and, although he continues to protest his innocence, was sent to prison on a serious charge when he was just 17 years old. While there, Juwan started reading a lot, seeking out books by or about people who overcame adversity and dealt with “the unfairness of life.” When the grandmother who raised him died while he was still incarcerated, Juwan vowed he would make something of himself in her honor.

Upon his release, he obtained a job at Cascade Engineering, which has a wonderful policy of giving people of color a chance, even a second chance as in Juwan’s case. Miles pointed out that Cascade’s Chief Administrative Officer and Group Services Senior Vice President is Kenyatta Brame, husband of BLSA’s advisor, Dean Tracey Brame. Later Judge Logan asked Mr. Brame to stand up, as he was present.

Cascade offered Juwan the opportunity he needed, and he has since enrolled in college on top of his full-time employment. But most important, Miles says, is that Juwan is now passionate about helping others to succeed, telling Miles, “I’m going to be selfless.”

Miles continued by saying, “I don’t think all the black men are in jail. But when you look at the statistics it is disproportionate.”

Miles and in turn Judge Ben Logan of the 61st District Court proceeded to detail some of those grim statistics.

Miles said that there are currently more African-American men in jail than there were in slavery. Approximately one in ten Michigan black males are incarcerated currently.

Logan went through a litany of the incarceration rates in various states. In Iowa, with a very low percentage of African-American residents at 2%, 25% of the prison population is African-American; Minnesota has 3% of the overall population black, while 37% of the prison population is black. The disturbing numbers in Michigan are 14% African-American in the overall population,  and a full 55% African-American in the prison population.

Judge Logan went on to discuss the successes of prison re-entry programs. Though he acknowledged that not everyone is going to avoid recidivism, he said, “These programs are heading in the right direction. They give prisoners a leg up, and opportunities to succeed.”

Social worker Stacy McGinnis, who works in juvenile detention for Kent County and had previously been a probation officer, focused on parenting. What she sees leads her to believe that the need for parenting support services is tremendous.

McGinnis said there is a Kent County task force organized to consider the discrepancies in incarceration rates.

Finally, Jeff Jones, who is the interim CEO and president of the Grand Rapids Urban League, talked about his own advantages in life and contrasted that with the obstacles other black men face. He is also the president of E.E. Milestone + Associates, Inc. Jones hopes in his Urban League work to focus on the problem.

Cooley students Kara Beaufort and Phil Harte moderated the discussion, and other BLSA future attorneys, all of them women, talked about the high rates of incarceration, and their own struggles, before the panelists began.

Grand Rapids campus Associate Dean Nelson Miller also introduced the topic, but with a different approach. He gave detailed statistics about what Cooley Law School has done to educate African-Americans, and therefore address the incarceration problem.  Recent statistics show that there were more Cooley law graduates of color than all of the other law schools in the state combined. “Cooley’s commitment is real,” Miller stated. “It isn’t about words, it’s about action.”

Miles and Logan both thanked Cooley for its dedication.