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Public defenders rally for black lives, justice system changes in Detroit

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

“Black lives matter to public defenders!”

That was the rallying cry in front of Detroit’s Frank Murphy Hall of Justice on Monday, as a group of well over 100 public defenders and allies came out to protest against the justice system they see every day—and say is fundamentally unjust.

Speakers laid out their case that black people within that building are too often the victims of a dehumanizing, corrupt system that targets them for criminalization and punishment. And they laid out a series of demands they say could change that.

Chanta Parker organized the march. She’s the managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service in Detroit, which Parker said Wayne County brought on board less than a year ago to try and repair its woefully inadequate and underfunded public defense system.

“We’ve seen dramatic results even in the year that we’ve been in existence,” said Parker. She said the group has pushed for the release of more than 200 jail inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more court cases against defendants are now being dismissed at preliminary levels. “We’re investigating earlier, we’re assigning social workers to cases earlier, and making sure that our clients get the support that they need so that they don’t come back to the system,” she said.

But Parker said that in addition to more resources and funding for public defender offices, the justice system needs to make some major changes. One of the group’s demands is a ban on “no-knock” warrants, which police commonly use in many parts of the country, including Michigan.

“Those are detrimental to our clients’ health,” Parker said. “Going into someone’s home without any sort of warning is the reason why Breonna Taylor died in her bed, because the police kicked down her door and killed her.” Taylor is the African American Emergency Medical Technician who was shot and killed by Louisville Police in March.

In addition, Parker said public defenders want to end money bail; end the criminalization of all drug offenses; end mandatory and minimum sentencing; and increase investment in restorative justice practices and community programs, alongside disinvestment from police departments.

Demetrius Knuckles said he experienced the injustices of the justice system first hand. He was a teenage drug dealer, and spent 28 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit at age 17.

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Protesters observed eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence in honor of George Floyd.

Knuckles said corruption in the entire justice system must be addressed. “This stuff that’s going on in here is the ultimate corruption. This is dehumanizing. This is taking away people’s lives,” he said.

“We’re not trying to bring awareness anymore. We’re trying to demand something.”

Legal groups including the State Appellate Defenders Office, the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, and the Detroit Justice Center also took part in the protest. Protesters also stood in silence for eight minutes, 46 seconds—the length of time George Floyd was held under a former Minneapolis Police officer’s knee until he died.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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