A recent study shows African Americans in Washtenaw County are far more likely than white people to be charged with felonies, and sentences tend to be longer. The data raises questions about prosecutorial discretion and biases in the criminal justice system. Aaron Kinzel is a lecturer of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of Michigan-Dearborn and serves as Executive Director of the Youth Justice Fund. He joined WEMU’s David Fair on "Washtenaw United" to explore bias and the search for equality in the criminal justice system.
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
ABOUT AARON KINZEL:
From Kinzel: "I am a Lecturer of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. I am a criminal justice reform advocate, and a formerly incarcerated individual who was raised by family members that were actively involved in criminality. I spent several months in juvenile detention facilities and nearly ten years straight in adult prisons. My redemption was earned upon my release by leaving a life of crime as a young teenager behind in my dark past. I chose to pursue a brighter future in higher education and community engagement to create safe neighborhoods and assist the formerly incarcerated to become productive and law-abiding citizens.”
The mission of Youth Justice Fund (YJF) is to assist returning citizens, sentenced as youth to a term of imprisonment, with services and resources necessary to ensure human dignity and full participation in their communities. Their organization is only one of a few in Washtenaw County that provides assistance and advocacy for returning citizens. They provide critical services for the most vulnerable populations who often come from impoverished communities of color working directly to reduce recidivism rates and enhance public safety.
Through our COVID-19 Community Relief Fund, UWWC provided $20,000 in general operating support to ensure YJF could respond to the unique needs of returning citizens during the pandemic. As you’ll recall, sentences for some incarcerated individuals in Washtenaw County were shortened causing an influx of citizens to be released at the height of the pandemic earlier this year.
CJF’S wraparound program model recognizes that supports and resources will be unique to each participant. The Welcome Home phase starts by building trust and rapport with the client. Clients often need time to process prison trauma after release so this time serves as a "debrief," swapping prison stories with our executive director and volunteers, who are also formerly incarcerated, and creating a safe space to express their fears or concerns post-release. During this time, YJF staff assess the needs of the client and, together, they create an individualized success plan. The Getting Settled phase is focused on connecting clients to services identified in their individualized success plan, prioritizing basic needs, like housing, health, food, transportation, employment, education. The Building Community phase has two parts: developing a broad network of community supporters (i.e. employers, housing partners, mental health providers, etc.) and providing peer-to-peer mentoring with formerly incarcerated leaders to help empower our clients and help them become civically engaged.
Aaron Kinzel was also a featured speaker at UWWC’s Equity Challenge Summit earlier this year in February, speaking on a panel about what Justice looks like in Washtenaw County.
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