The University of Michigan’s Carceral State Project, with the support of various University departments, held a roundtable titled “Criminalization and the Carceral State” Wednesday night. The event, the second in a series to be held throughout the year, was attended by a mix of both students and Ann Arbor residents.
Erin Keith, staff attorney for Youth Legal Services and Empowerment of the Detroit Justice Center, was member of the six-person panel that led the event. She provided the audience with her definition of criminalization.
“Criminalization, when I think of that word, what it means to me basically is that a fourteen-year-old Black kid in the hood is capable of a quadruple homicide simply because he is a fourteen-year-old Black kid from the hood, and I think the fact that more people don’t bat an eyelash when certain kids are accused of criminality that seems crazy for someone of their age really defines criminalization,” Keith said.
Another panelist, History professor Matthew Lassiter, clarified the Carcel State Project series was meant to teach students and community members in a setting outside of the classroom.
“We deliberately designed all six panels this year in the symposium series to feature community members, rather than faculty members telling you about their research,” Lassiter said. “Activists, organizers, attorneys, practitioners, as well as those directly impacted as well as formerly incarcerated people.”
Lassiter then asked each panelist three questions regarding the evolution of immigration, incarceration and policing with respect to race.
As an immigrant herself, panelist Maria Ibarra-Frayre, Southeast Michigan Organizer for We the People Michigan, stated she believed immigration has become equated to criminal activity throughout the years. She shared a story of a volunteer worrying about her son being treated as an undocumented citizen, despite the fact he had Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, which allows children who came to the United States illegally to defer deportation and become eligible for work permits.
“Even within our community we have this idea of who deserves to be treated in this particular way, and that somehow because he had DACA, a permit that a lot of undocumented young people have, that somehow that was worth more merit and he shouldn’t be treated that way,” Frayre said.
She then explained how this particular misconception harms the undocumented community.
“I had to explain to her that in Michigan, detention centers are actually county jails, that they’re mixed with everyone else,” Frayre said. “Many of them are poor and they can’t pay. These are people, you know, the same kind of people we are. Because even within our own undocumented community, we still have this false narrative that just because you are in jail, you are all the sudden less deserving or because you must have done something really wrong and there needs to be this divide between who is criminal and who isn’t.”
Mental health issues and how they relate to police violence was also a focal point of the event. Panelist Mark Fancher, a racial justice staff attorney at American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, shared the story of 49-year-old Milton Hall, a homeless Black man from Saginaw, Michigan, who died after an encounter with police.
According to MLive, the police were called on Hall after he was accused of petty theft from a convenience store on July 1, 2012.
During their encounter, the police officers loosened the leash of their canine in what seemed like an attempt to intimidate Hall.
“And at the point that the dog began to do that, Milton Hall took out a pocket knife and began to wave it around. He started screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Let the dog go, I’m not afraid of the dog,’” Fancher said. “They pulled the dog back in and then officers present pulled out their rifles, took aim and unleashed dozens of rounds onto this man’s body.”
Panelists were then asked what solutions they had to any of the issues. Joseph Summers, director of Friends of Restorative Justice, spoke of the issue of mass incarceration. He believes the problem begins with county prosecutors and thinks they’re the key to resolving the issue.
“Changing the way county prosecutors operate can be one of the best ways to address the issue of overcriminalization,” Summers said. “Recent researchers suggested that our county prosecutors are the number one factor in perpetuating mass incarceration.”
LSA freshman Annie Mintun asked a question regarding police involvement in civilian organized groups who oversee the police brutality in their community.
“In the aftermath of Aura Rosser’s death, there has been a lot of organizing in the Ann Arbor community the past few years and recently there’s been a push to establish a civilian oversight committee that’s just been a bit divisive on whether or not police officer should be included on this committee,” Mintun said, addressing the panel.
Frayre answered the question, saying she didn’t think officers should be included on the committee, because she believes the committee should be independent from the police department.
“I think no, a very strong no,” she said. “It’s important to have them as consultants, to get their input, to understand the law, but how can you expect the police officer to not be bias in that circumstance. It’s checks and balances, and to me it does not make sense to have police there.”
In opposition to Frayre, Derrick Jackson, a panelist and director of community engagement of the Washtenaw Sheriff’s Office, and Fancher said they believed police involvement was essential and civilian oversight was not enough.
“Changing from the inside-out as well as the outside-in (is crucial),” Jackson said. “I don’t know any conflict or conversation where if I extend my hand and you don’t extend your hand that I’m going to have anything good to think about you. I always think law enforcement should be at the table in some capacity when we’re having these very difficult discussions.”
Fancher explained how police unions and other factors make officer punishment difficult.
“I really think that policing is going to change only when the officers themselves, the ranking officers, decide that they’re going to do it,” he said. “I don’t think any of us outside law enforcement can change their culture. They have to decide if they want to do it.”