Fall 2022 Newsletter

Happy August from the Detroit Justice Center!

The Detroit Justice Center (DJC) is celebrating a recent win. Last month, the Michigan Supreme Court outlawed automatic life sentences for young people convicted of first-degree murder that transpired when they were 18 years old (People v. Parks). The MI Supreme Court also published two opinions and an order that assists with extending the U.S. Miller protections that deem mandatory life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles. The MI Supreme Court held that mandatory life without parole is an unconstitutional sentence for young people convicted of first-degree murder that occurred when they were 18 years old, and that life with the possibility of parole is unconstitutional for children convicted of second-degree murder that occurred when they were not yet 18.

The “sentence lacks proportionality because it fails to take into account the mitigating characteristics of youth, specifically late-adolescent brain development,” Justice Elizabeth Welch wrote for the majority.

The MI Supreme Court also issued an order granting leave to appeal for Mr. Antonio Poole, based on their Parks ruling. This is a specific victory for DJC as we are proud that some of our attorneys filed an Amicus Brief in support of Mr. Poole’s request for relief. Staff members of DJC have worked alongside Gabrielle French from the Michigan Center for Youth Justice to shed light on how racism perpetuates mandatory life without parole sentences for young people, not just under 18.

DJC would like to express how proud we are of our partners at the State Appellate Defender’s Office (SADO) who led these efforts. This is one victorious step toward decarceration!

What’s Happening at DJC?

We’re honored to have received the Max Mark-Cranbrook Community Peacemaker Award from the Wayne State University Center for Peace & Conflict Studies during the 1st Annual International Arts and Peace Festival, which took place at the Taylor Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. We were nominated by Barbara Jones, the co-founder of the Metro Detroit Restorative Justice Network (MDRJN), to recognize our work to advance racial justice and community development and our collaborative work on restorative justice over the past four years. It’s a profound honor to be recognized by one of our partners in this way and a testament to how our Just Cities Lab Project Manager and MDRJN co-founder Angel McKissic shows up and builds community.

We were recognized alongside three other awardees: Dylan Morris, a senior at Oxford High School who founded No Future Without Today, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to mental health services; Tonya Phillips of the Detroit Right to Counsel Campaign, and Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network. DJC would like to extend congratulations to the other awardees as well as our comrades in the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network who were also honored at the International Art & Peace Festival on Aug. 6.

Cash Bail Settlement

Last month, Detroit’s 36th District Court reached a monumental settlement to limit the use of cash bail. This is a positive development in the fight against cash bail, which tends to be unaffordable for a vast amount of people. We commend our colleagues at the ACLU of Michigan and their co-counsel organizations for their important advocacy, which will better protect the rights of the clients we serve in Detroit’s 36th District Court. Our team is proud to have supported the ACLU’s efforts in an advisory capacity.

Amanda Alexander, DJC’s Founding Executive Director said of the news: “This settlement is a major step toward ending the unjust practices of cash bail and pretrial detention in Michigan, and we look forward to other jurisdictions following suit. Jailing people on bail criminalizes poverty,  upends people’s lives, and does not make communities safer. We welcome this settlement in the 36th District and hope it signals similar changes throughout the state.”

DJC’s Managing Policy Counsel Erin Keith said: “We will continue to fight beside our partner organizations and fellow advocates until our cash bail system in Michiganhas been completely overhauled. Rather than relying heavily on piecemeal agreements after lawsuits against individual courts, we must continue to push toward a statewide approach to transforming our bail system, which requires a legislative solution.”

As noted in a recent Detroit Free Press op-ed, written by Phil Mayor, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Michigan: “This [settlement] comes at a critical time for Michigan. Although Detroit’s courts are changing, the abuses we observed statewide continue. A bipartisan group of legislators in Lansing have proposed a package of bills that would reform the system, but those bills have not even advanced out of committee. The Michigan Legislature needs to act to make other court systems follow the 36th District Court’s example by adopting a more just and safe pretrial legal system.”

We support this view and will not stop until we see a day when cash bail is abolished–a day when someone’s lack of wealth or assets does not impede their freedom.

Lawyering For Liberation Conference, St. Louis 

Back in July, some of DJC’s staff members were able to attend the Lawyering for Liberation Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, as well as virtually. We were able to listen to several speakers speak, including our new Associate Executive Director of programs and strategy nikkita oliver, M Adams, Daryl Atkinson, Robin D.G. Kelley, Tef Poe, Kayla Reed, and Jamala Rogers, among others. We were so inspired by what we heard and being amongst comrades. Thank you to everyone who presented, attended, and influenced our work in any way possible.

Yusef Bunchy Shakur’s 16th annual Neighborhood Festival & Backpack Giveaway

DJC participated in Yusef Bunchy Shakur’s 16th annual Neighborhood Festival & Backpack giveaway on Aug. 6 It was great to table at the event and connect with community members while sharing information regarding the services that we offer at DJC.

The End of Isolation Tour

DJC had the wonderful opportunity to be a community partner for the Detroit stop of The End of Isolation Tour, which was presented by the Pulitzer Center on Aug. 9-10 at Jam Handy. The BOX is a play about collective resistance and transformation. It has already had an impact on reducing solitary confinement in California. The End of Isolation Tour hit the road in July to use the visceral power of theater as legislative art, traveling to communities at the forefront of passing laws to end the practice of solitary confinement.

The tour continues and makes stops in Baltimore, Washington D.C., Winston-Salem, and Atlanta throughout the rest of the month and into the beginning of September. You can purchase tickets here.

Celebrating Our 2022-2023 Artist in Residence

Since 2020, DJC has hosted a unique artist residency program where an artist is invited to create work that imagines a world without incarceration or policing. Applicants must be from Wayne County, MI and the winning applicant receives $10,000. DJC provides support around the artist’s project, connecting them with community members and staff as a resource for their planning. This residency seeks to uplift the work of artists who imagine an abolitionist future and invite the public to dream alongside them.

DJC is happy to announce that the recipient of our 2022-2023 Artist Residency is Saylem Celeste. As a Detroiter and lifelong resident of Wayne County, Saylem wowed our selection panel with their proposed project “Visions, Realities, and Speculative ‘Now-isms’”. The proposal envisions abolition in a way that is rooted in meeting the needs of individuals and communities through access to food, housing, and water. In Saylem’s own words “by amplifying the ways in which we are already accessing Abolitionist/Black Feminist futures, we can collectively illuminate more pathways into a non-carceral future. I fundamentally believe that the world that we live in already has critical windows into a world without carceral systems of power and exploitation.” Through this lens, the radical care of the present moment is the seed of a world without policing and incarceration.

Saylem will serve as DJC’s artist in residence until July 2023. When asked what this opportunity means for them and their work, Saylem wrote: “I feel so very honored to be trusted with the task of bringing my project proposal to life in collaboration with the Detroit Justice Center. I am so excited to synthesize new, accessible containers within the city and to share these containers and explorations with the local community in a way I haven’t seen implemented here (up until this point.) I hope to be able to experiment and push the bounds of what abolition can fuel in our communities in regards to care, revolution, and imagination during my residence.”

 Welcoming nikkita oliver to DJC!

DJC is giving a warm welcome to our new Associate Executive Director of programs & strategy nikkita oliver. Hailing from Seattle, WA by way of Indianapolis, IN. nikkita is an artist, community organizer, abolitionist, educator, and attorney. They hold a B.A. in sociology with a minor in Women’s Studies from Seattle Pacific University, a Masters of Education in Social and Cultural Foundations from the University of Washington, and a Juris Doctorate. 

They have been a bar licensed attorney in Washington State since October of 2015 and are currently seeking admissions into the Michigan State Bar. nikkita has served as a fellow with the Movement Law Lab and is currently a Movement Lab Lawyer-in-Residence completing a project on Democracy Defense. They have also served as the executive director and senior attorney at Creative Justice, an arts-based healing engaged space for youth and young adults impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline and other forms of systemic oppression. In nikkita’s spare time they compete as an amatuer boxer. They also are a poet and musician. 

nikkita works at the intersections of arts, law, education, and community organizing, striving to create experiences which draw us closer to our humanity and invites us to imagine what we hope to see in the future. They are excited to relocate to Detroit and assist with expanding DJC’s impact by strategically leading the program side of the organization. DJC is excited to have them aboard!

Intern Program Close Out

It’s been an amazing summer. From legal research, reviewing discovery, assisting at legal clinics, and drafting legal memoranda, to documenting and surveying Detroit’s incoming affordable housing projects, our interns were BU-SY! We are beyond grateful for and amazed by, the patience, brilliance, excitement, and dedication our movement law and Semester-In-Detroit interns brought with them this summer!

Our Sign Onto the Petition to Stop Pretrial Detention and Gender-based Imprisonment in NYC

DJC signed an open letter in support of our comrades in New York City demanding community services to put an end to pretrial detention and gender-based imprisonment.

As people committed to abolition, Black freedom, and ending racial and gender violence, we oppose New York City’s proposal to open a new jail for “women and gender-expansive people” in the Harlem-based Lincoln Correctional Facility, a New York State prison until 2019. In the context of our concern for all people incarcerated at Rikers, in conditions that desperately call for an alternative, we believe that this proposed jail is a continuation of carceral violence.

Rikers is, and has been, a site of torture for all who are incarcerated there. This dire situation urgently necessitates a real solution, namely, the immediate shuttering of all the jails on Rikers, the defunding of the NYC Department of Corrections, and investment in anti-carceral projects that do not create more suffering and harm. These solutions must not expand and legitimate a present and future of human caging. We urge that the people currently incarcerated on Rikers and in the Rose M. Singer Center — along with criminalized people, formerly-incarcerated people, organizers, and everyone committed to abolition — create and fight for an alternative plan that begins with universal pretrial release, investing in non-carceral, non-custodial community-based resources, and the decriminalization of survival.”

Please join us in the fight to stop pretrial detention and gender-based imprisonment in NYC by signing the open letter here.


Black August Scavenger Hunt

Join us for some friendly competition as we host DJC’s first Black August Scavenger Hunt! Form your own team, or join someone else’s, and compete in a race across the city of Detroit, solving clues that will give you a firsthand look at the work we do at the Detroit Justice Center.You’ll meet our staff, learn about the impact we’re making, and see for yourself exactly how we’re advancing the fight for freedom in Detroit.

After the scavenger hunt, we’ll have a community gathering at the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm to award the winner, break bread, and connect with each other.DJC’s work is rooted in a long legacy of struggle. Each year, Black August is recognized as an annual celebration of the Black liberation movement and a time to call to free those who are imprisoned for engaging in that fight.This Black August, deepen your knowledge and engagement with the movement for Black liberation happening right here in Detroit by being in community with DJC.

DJC’s work is rooted in a long legacy of struggle. Each year, organizations across the country recognize Black August as an annual celebration of the Black liberation movement to call to free those who are imprisoned for engaging in that fight. This Black August, deepen your knowledge and engagement with the movement for Black liberation happening right here in Detroit by being in community with DJC.

COVID-19 precautions: We have your safety in mind as the pandemic continues. Scavenger hunt teams are self-selected, so you can opt to participate with people you feel safe around. Our community gathering that follows will take place outdoors with plenty of distance to minimize risks as much as possible. Masks are encouraged, but not required, to keep everyone healthy.

Do you want to participate, but in a different way? Perhaps you can’t make the scavenger hunt, but you want to join us for the community gathering afterwards? Or you just want to make an impact this month? Read our FAQs to learn about different ways to get involved.

Register to participate here.

DJC in the News

Our community legal advocate Sonja Bonnett was featured on both NBC Nightly and ABC News. She spoke on Detroit homeowners being illegally overtaxed $600 million dollars without being compensated. “Until they pay Detroiters back the money that they stole from us and the homes that they stole from us we can’t say we won,” Sonja tells NBC News while sharing her story of having her property taxes overassessed.

Staff attorney Joe McGuire was also quoted in Bridge Detroit talking about the hardship many Detroit residents face due to incompetent landlords. “Landlords know how difficult it’s going to be for you to find other housing that’s better than what you have now,” Joe McGuire told Bridge Detroit.

“When you complain that they’re not preparing the property as they should, that they’re not paying the water bill, property taxes, or any number of things that a landlord should do, it is a lot easier for landlords to say ‘Well if you don’t like it you can leave.”

What We’re Reading