Attorney honored for work on behalf of the most vulnerable

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Deborah LaBelle wins Cooley's "Integrity in Our Communities" award

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle told a roomful of Cooley Law School students that every individual is entitled to basic rights based solely on their inalienable status as a human being.

"If we're unwilling to give basic rights to those who are the most marginalized in our society, we fail in our most basic obligation to provide justice to all," said LaBelle.

Thomas M. Cooley Law School's Center for Ethics, Service and Professionalism honored LaBelle during the school's "Integrity in Our Communities" series last week.

LaBelle has been the lead counsel in more than a dozen class action lawsuits that have successfully challenged policies affecting the treatment and sentencing of the incarcerated.

Dean Joan Vestrand called LaBelle a champion for the protection of human rights, and said her work is particularly important to children in both the criminal justice and educational systems.

"While her home base is Ann Arbor, her advocacy demonstrates a commitment that is defined by the highest principles of human rights that transcend nation borders," said Vestrand in her introduction.

LaBelle said that when she first met with incarcerated women at Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, she was shocked to hear how many of them said they'd been raped multiple times over the years by prison guards.

That discovery led to a class-action suit that began in 1996 and ended 13 years with the state of Michigan settling for $100 million divided among about 500 women. Along the way, the Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed, becoming the first federal law dealing with the sexual assault of prisoners.

Labelle also played an instrumental role in the recent ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court that requires the review of all minors who have received a sentence of life in prison.

LaBelle, who helped write a Michigan ACLU report calling for the ability to take an offender's youth into consideration during sentencing, spoke briefly about that longtime fight.

She said she was heartened by the Supreme Court's decision regarding juvenile life sentences this summer, and said she was impressed when the justices used the word "children" rather than "juvenile offenders" or "teen killers."

"We knew we had moved the court," she said, referring to the change in language.

In addition to running her own private practice, LaBelle is the director of Second Chances for Youth and the ACLU's Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative.

Published: Thu, Nov 1, 2012

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