an edited version of this oped was published in the Detroit Free Press on August 15, 2021
That’s what Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton told Politico recently when discussing Anthony, a young Black man from Ann Arbor sitting in the Washtenaw County Jail. Sheriff Clayton tried to explain how the legal system completely failed to take Anthony’s mental health struggles into consideration. “Society’s lack of understanding and sensitivity to mental illness have led to these terrible situations like Anthony’s and many others like him.”
As faith leaders in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, we see many young potential Anthony’s in our congregations and work to help shoulder the heavy weight that young Black men carry in our communities. The dual burden of living in a society that both traumatizes young Black men by perceiving them as dangerous and leaving them vulnerable to police actions while at the same time punishes behavior stemming from very real mental health issues with incarceration instead of providing mental health treatment simply contributes to the disproportionate numbers of young Black men populating Michigan prisons, jails and parole lists. And it does nothing to recognize or help with the everyday trauma of being an emerging young adult with black skin color except to saddle them with felony records that their actions do not fully warrant.
A recent report, Rethinking Justice for Emerging Adults, highlights the effects of racism on the development of a young person, “African American emerging adults are burdened with, in addition to normative developmental tasks, the negative sequel of institutional and interpersonal racial discrimination.” Translated that means that, in addition to the regular difficulties of transitioning from teenager to adult, Black emerging adults absorb subtle and not-so-subtle societal cues that inflict harm -- those side glances when they walk into a store, women clutching purses when they approach on the sidewalk, and police pulling them over for the public safety threat of expired tabs.
While we work to inform and transform institutional racism and implicit bias in our communities, we need immediate change in how the criminal legal system deals with young Black men, especially those carrying a burden they did not create and living with mental and behavioral diagnoses.
In Anthony’s case, instead of acknowledging his diagnoses and listening to his mother’s pleas for treatment, the prosecutor painted him as a drug dealer and a danger to society to turn up the dial on punishment. The judge agreed and denied Anthony’s request to be released to in-person psychiatric treatment for which he had been on a waitlist for seven months and for which his parents were prepared to draw from their savings to pay . The job of a prosecutor and a judge is to do justice and to find pathways to help all members of our community be their best selves—not to populate the prisons. The prosecutor and judge in Anthony’s case have failed on that score, thus far.
What prevents us from doing more to shift funds and attitudes away from using incarceration toward identifying early on those people whose mental health is a contributing factor in their actions and making effective treatment available? It’s cheaper. It’s humane. It works. And Washtenaw County voters have shown their support for this change by electing leaders who have made taking people like Anthony off the incarceration pipeline a central policy program. When so many of this County’s leaders and residents recognize that we can’t look to law enforcement to solve mental health issues, why is Anthony sitting in jail?
We need the County prosecutor to screen for mental health issues before charging to identify and divert those in need of treatment. Judges should ask tough questions and fairly assess whether the person before them will be rehabilitated with incarceration or treatment.
But the court could do more. It could identify the extent of mental health issues in its criminal courts by tapping public health researchers to review court files and determine how many people appearing before them have diagnosed mental/behavioral health issues. Once documented, those public health experts, the court, other justice system stakeholders, including the public, should engage in a thoughtful, strategic dialogue about how we want to support the Anthony’s yet to come.
But first we should begin with Anthony.
Signed by the following faith leaders in Washtenaw County: Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor; Rev. Jeffery D. Harrold, New Beginnings Community Church of Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor; Imam Abdullah Amin, Imam of the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor; Pastor Yolanda Whiten, MDiv.; Rev. Maymette Dolberry;
Pastor Bill Kersey, Community Church of God, Ypsilanti; Rev. Denise Willis, Community Church of God, Ypsilanti; Rev. Portia Davis Mann, Community Church of God, Ypsilanti;
Rev. Larry Davis, Christian Tabernacle Church, Ypsilanti; Jeffrey Alexander Hamilton, B.A Biblical Studies, Simply Sustaining Scripture, CCOG Ypsilanti;
Rev. Maurice Gordon, President, Ypsilanti Ann Arbor Ministerial Alliance; Retired Pastor Jerry Hatter, AME Church; and Rev. Gwendolyn Hatter, AME Church.