Lawyers Giving Back looks at a side of lawyers you don’t hear too much about—the side that gives back…pays it forward..and shares the love. We’ve found quite a number of attorneys who log non-billable hours helping others—simply because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Their stories are inspiring, and hey, who knew lawyers were so…good? If you’ve got a story to share about an attorney who’s doing the right thing, let us know—we’d love to let others know, too. Today, we’re talking with attorney Deborah LaBelle…
Clearly injustice moves attorney Deborah LaBelle somewhere down deep. Since she graduated from Wayne State law school in 1979, she has waded into some dark waters, investing hundreds of pro bono hours, simply because she believes she’s doing the right thing. In 2008, after a 14 year battle, she and a group of other lawyers won a multi-million dollar verdict and landmark case on behalf of women who had been abused in Michigan prisons.
Labelle now has set her sites on getting a second chance for the thousands of juvenile offenders who languish in American prisons convicted of murder or felony murder committed prior to their 18th birthday. “It is just mandatory,” says LaBelle, whose gentle voice belies the tiger within. “There is no discretion. You take a 14 year old and they are automatically treated as an adult. It is pretty stunning.”
Stunning indeed it is. The United States is the only country in the world where juveniles charged and convicted of murder (even if they were not principally responsible for the murder) are automatically given life with no chance of parole. There are 307 ‘juvenile lifers’ now in Michigan prisons ranging in age from 14 to 65.
One man, now in sixties, who LaBelle knows well, went to prison when he was 15 for murdering his abusive stepfather.
“He is not the boy he was,” says LaBelle. “He told me once he sometimes sees that boy in his minds eye and he just wants to shake him and say ‘why don’t you just leave, just go’.”
But that’s not what happened and he now has spent more than 50 years languishing in prison. “He was just filled with rage and anger and everything seemed hopeless,” says LaBelle. “Kids just don’t have experience or the ability to chart things out very well.”
“The heart of this issue is sentencing people who commit their crimes when they are 14, 15 or 16 years old to the harshest sentence you can give to anyone, which is life without parole,” says LaBelle. “We believe this is cruel and unusual punishment.“
LaBelle has filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief in the state of Michigan on behalf of 9 class representatives. All are juvenile lifers currently being held with no chance of parole for the rest of their lives in Michigan prisons.
This is the first civil rights suit of its kind in the United States and aimed at what she describes as a simple goal. “We are just asking that the parole board just take a look at them. Have they matured, was this a youthful impetuous crime, did it involve peer pressure, or was it one of those stupid horrible things that youths sometimes do in a moment. Have they matured and should they come home at some point?” asks LaBelle.
A recent report authored by LaBelle and others was funded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other donors. And also, when LaBelle has received attorney fees for cases she was involved in, much of it goes right back into funding other lawsuits aimed at righting systemic wrongs.
What kind of a lawyer does so much for so little?
“Well, I just like the work,” says LaBelle.
Deborah LaBelle is a graduate of Wayne State Law School. She mentors undergraduate and graduate students and has supervised at least six interns a year for the past ten years. Her practice, the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.