A profile of Staff Attorney—Youth Services, Erin Keith
Casey Rocheteau: What drew you to working at DJC?
Erin Keith: I grew up in this area, and I was passionate about being a part of the change here. I left to go to college and law school, but I always felt something tugging me back here. So many of the issues I was working on in DC, where I went to school, were so relevant to things that needed to happen in Detroit. Someone shared an article with me about the Detroit Justice Center, and I thought, “this is so perfect, and they’re just starting!” DJC didn’t even have a website yet, so I started texting all of my friends who were in this space, trying to see if anyone knew Amanda. Someone put me in contact with her, and we met and talked about the youth work I was doing in DC, and her vision for DJC as a place for solution-oriented lawyers. The rest is history.
CR: What drew you to juvenile justice specifically?
EK: I think it stems back to having a family member who’s incarcerated for something he did as a teenager. My only interaction with him for my entire life was through the phone. When he would call to speak to my father, I would just sort of pass the phone off and didn’t really ask any questions. One day my dad wasn’t home, so I answered and ended up having a whole conversation with my cousin. I was probably in high school at that point, but he’d been in jail since before my very first birthday. He told me how he used to run track when he was in high school, and we had that in common. Overall, he just sounded so normal which was surprising to me. As we were getting off the phone, I asked him when he was getting released, and he got quiet for a while and then answered me. “Well, I have a life sentence so…” his voice trailing off. I was shocked. He was convicted of a crime that was an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole at 19 years old. No chance for redemption. No recognition of his very drastic growth from then until now. He’s been in jail for 26 years, for something he did before he could even legally drink.
That’s what sparked my research into teenagers being prosecuted at all, which then led me to take classes on juvenile justice. When I went to law school, I was in Georgetown’s juvenile justice clinic and my passion to work with young people grew from there.
CR: So what’s the work you’re doing now?
EK: In terms of youth specific projects, I’m developing workshops and other resources to empower young people and allow them to lead and direct the change to the justice system that they want to see. We’re also doing some direct legal services work with youth and young adult returning citizens and those with legal challenges in the community. We’re handling everything from low level misdemeanors and expungements, to child custody and support cases. If it’s a barrier to a young person thriving, we’ll try to tackle it or figure out other service providers that can.
CR: As someone who left and came back–what is your ideal vision for what you want Detroit to look like in 15 years?
EK: What would Detroit look like or what would the justice system in Detroit look like?
EK: I’ll start with the justice system and then go broader to the city. First, it’s absolutely ridiculous that we are still automatically charging all 17-year-olds as adults for all offenses. We recently did a survey that found most teenage participants had no idea that at 17 they would automatically be held in an adult jail for doing anything illegal, even something minor. It doesn’t have to be this way. Michigan is one of only four states that adheres to this archaic and ineffective practice, and I am inspired by our local partner organizations that are working to change our laws in this area. I would also like to see the justice system stop locking people up for things that are really just manifestations of their trauma and their poverty—survival crimes— especially when another party was not endangered. Additionally, I want us to stop criminalizing normal adolescent behavior, and stop referring petty school fights to the court system.
In terms of Detroit, I really would like to see a city that is more inclusive of the residents that never left. Too often, the presumption is that the people who live here do so because they can’t escape Detroit, and that people that are coming back are somehow saviors. When I decided that I was coming home, I had so many well-meaning mentors look me in my face and ask why I would ever come back here. I just don’t understand why we’re encouraging our young people, who have the talent, skills, resources and innovative ideas, to leave. I would like for Detroit to be a place that people aren’t just proud to rep on a t-shirt, but that people who are in the city can feel proud of, happy about, and can afford. I would like a Detroit that is equitable and truly fair for its residents, where people feel like they can actually thrive and do well here.
CR: What do you like to do for fun?
EK: I like dancing around listening to Beyonce and playing the piano. I love live music, going to concerts and discovering new, underground artists on YouTube before they blow up and go mainstream.