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Meet Deborah LaBelle, another one of our 2018 Role Models. Deborah is an attorney and writer whose advocacy focuses on the human rights of people in detention, the intersection of race and gender, and the rights of children in the criminal justice and education systems in the United States. In addition to her private practice, Deborah is the Director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative for the ACLU of Michigan and Coordinator of Michigan’s Juvenile Mitigation Access Committee. She has been lead counsel in over a dozen class actions that have successfully challenged policies affecting the treatment and sentencing of incarcerated men, women and children, utilizing a human rights framework. She has represented clients before the United States Supreme Court and in international forums with an integrated model for reform utilizing concurrent litigation, documentation and advocacy strategies. She is being recognized for her outstanding professional accomplishments and commitment to fighting for human rights at this year’s Role Model Dinner.
Here are some clips from her recent conversation with AFG.
Alternatives For Girls (AFG): For many of the women we serve, AFG provides a support system to help them make positive choices. Was there anyone in your life or career who has helped guide you in making important decisions?
Deborah LaBelle: I think that mentors were very important to me all along the way. Besides my family, who were mentors for helping me believe in myself, I’ve had many mentors throughout my career. If it was one thing I wouldn’t give up, it would be that. Mentors are crucial. Most of my skill set and vision were forged through mentorships. I try to [provide mentorship] myself. We always have four or five students in the office that we bring in to work on cases, not just law students but undergrads, journalism, social work, etc. I’m proud of how many people have gone on to do incredible social justice work.
AFG: Can you tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced throughout your career?
LaBelle: I’m a first-generation college graduate. So I didn’t know any lawyers. There were none in my family, and I’d never had been in a courtroom. I wanted to do trial law, and that was unusual for a woman. Most lawyers in the room were white men, and since I do trial law, I’m in front of juries and they have their own ideas of what a lawyer should be. So I have to work harder to create that bond and identity, as opposed to white men who walk into a room and people identify with that because of what they see in TV and movies. I’m sort of grateful for my challenges. I came in with a background and a history that many lawyers don’t have. It informed me and it created more opportunities for me in a way because I understood things. I had a deeper understanding of my clients and how the world works.
AFG: Which of your accomplishments are you the most proud of?
LaBelle: The work that I did with girls and women in detention, both from the work to get rehabilitative programming and to eliminate custodial abuse. It started in Michigan, but it resulted in a federal law that applies all across the country and eliminates custodial abuse for women, girls, and youth. It was a hard-fought case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. This one resulted in a transformation of the way that women are held in custody all across the country. [I am proud of] the impact of that and seeing the number of people, women, and girls, coming out of the experience being incredibly self-empowered. Their courage transformed them and gave them a sense of citizenship that I think was gone because many of them had been poorly treated by the justice system and had lost hope in it. So seeing that they could engage in it and change it was really inspiring.
AFG: Why do you believe that it is important to empower girls and young women?
LaBelle: [It is important to empower girls and young women] because they are the hope for transforming the world for the better. The vision of those who are controlling things from the top down hasn’t worked well. The wealth, the strength, the courage, the breadth of experience, and really the kind of depth of character to get beyond the difficulties, to do what it takes. I want their vision. It has to come from them. That’s who I want to rule.