SBM's 'Champion of Justice' awardees; Father and daughter honored for working to fight youth crime problem

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

About 14 years ago, Saginaw County 70th District Court District Judge M.T. Thompson became concerned with the disproportionate number of African American young men who stood before him in court.

He found the statistics sobering: The national odds that a black man will go to prison at some point in his life are 1 in 3. More than 50 percent of Michigan's inmates are black, although blacks are just 14.2 percent of the population. Since 1980, black men have been going to prison at 13 times the rate they've been going to college. As a result, Michigan is one of only five states with more black men in prison than in college.

"That means that for a male African American child growing up in Michigan, it's more realistic to look forward to going to prison than college," said Thompson.

So 11 years ago, Thompson and his daughter, attorney Monica Nuckolls, developed a curriculum especially for disadvantaged communities with a youth crime problem. It's called "Making Choices and Facing Consequences" and it is aimed at altering these statistics.

Their efforts were recently recognized when they received the State Bar of Michigan's 2011 Champion of Justice award at the bar association's annual meeting last week.

"We're convinced now more than ever that if you take a loving, caring adult mentor, place them in the life of a child, and give them the right tools to work with, you can change the direction of that child's life," said Thompson.

"The possibility of being able to change so many more lives is what we're going for," said Nuckolls, a commercial litigation associate at Clark Hill PLC in Detroit before becoming a professor at Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills.

Starting in 2000, the pair began writing a two-volume curriculum called "Making Choices and Facing Consequences" based on true incidents that require students to work through real-life choices about gangs, bullying, violent crimes, drug and alcohol use.

They believe that the beauty of the program is how the stories engage young adults, who face many of the same choices on a daily basis. Working through these real life situations improve the young adult's decision making skills, they've found.

"In each story, the students read about and discuss young adults who make good choices with good consequences, and those who make bad choices that lead to addiction, death, or prison," said Nuckolls.

"Parents don't always know how to initiate and develop conversations about drugs, alcohol and some of these other things," said Thompson. "The stories in the book are such a great teaching tool because they force you to discuss those issues and the consequences."

In 2008, they ran a program called "The Boyz-2-Men Manhood Training Program" that provided character training, role models, and positive influences for 119 young men.

In 2010, they organized another community based mentoring program in Saginaw called "Project Future," which added a women's component called "How to be a Lady." Nearly 100 adult volunteers conducted a series of Saturday morning training sessions with more than 200 students.

Later that year, Cooley Associate Dean John Nussbaumer agreed to help Thompson and Nuckolls organize the Project Future program for young people in the Pontiac School District.

Thompson and Nuckolls trained the volunteer instructors, who were law students, pastors, lawyers, judges, law professors, and teachers. Held in partnership with Pontiac schools, the program opened in September of 2010 with major funding from Cooley President Don LeDuc's Deans Annual Fund.

Project Future was held for four hours on nine Saturdays and was free of charge to the participants, who were in grades 6 through 12. When the program ended, teachers reported that many of the students showed more confidence in their ability to address concerns.

Noting that Saginaw, Flint, Detroit and Pontiac are all in the FBI's list of the 10 most violent cities in America, Thompson said they knew they'd be dealing with students who had hard home lives.

"We continue to hear from them when the program's over," he said. "Saginaw's a small place. Kids come and tell me, 'I was in Project Future. Here's what I learned, and here's what I'm doing now.'"

Nuckolls got a phone call from a mother who said her son had been bullied in school, but that he had more confidence and could better deal with bullies after attending the program.

Through Project Future, Thompson and Nuckolls have reached about 300 kids in Saginaw and 70 in Pontiac. Now they'd like to expand Project Future into Flint, Detroit and other Michigan cities, and then globally. They are currently checking on the printing and distribution costs of offering the program in a Weekly Reader format in cities including Detroit.

"These programs have the potential to benefit other communities around the state if we can find the funding to support them," said Nussbaumer, who is particularly proud that this is the fourth consecutive year that a Cooley Law School faculty member has won this award.

One of the unique things about Project Future is that it had no grant funding, but was supported by churches, community groups, and individual volunteers.

"People care about our kids, and if you give them a plan that makes sense, and that makes a difference, they'll respond to it," said Thompson.

Thompson said it's time to stop standing on the sidelines pointing fingers and blaming parents, the schools and the media for juvenile delinquency.

Added Nuckolls: "Our children represent an investment in the future that must be made today."

Published: Thu, Sep 29, 2011

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