Cleary University held its first annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in Howell today, using it to focus on creating solutions for mass incarceration.

The event included a screening of the documentary “13th” at the Historic Howell Theater and followed with a discussion at the university’s Johnson Center in Genoa Township. A panel comprised of various perspectives weighed in on factors that impact mass incarceration, like substance abuse, current policies, and potential solutions.

The group spoke to the issue of substances been marketed to a target audience and law enforcement cracking down on that very same demographic. Panelist Mark Fancher of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan says there has never been a period of time in U.S. history when there was a good relationship between law enforcement and African Americans. Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy agreed, but responded to say the targeted enforcement stems from officers having to take on the role of parenting.

Murphy says law enforcement officers have been forced to address problems that weren't taken care of at home. Murphy admits there is room for improvement in the criminal justice system, but says instead of focusing on policy reforms, the community needs to put time into teaching values and morals, money into mental health services, and promote prevention programs.

Reverend Deon Johnson of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton agreed with some of Murphy’s stance, but feels stigmas and profiling that began years ago still exists today, affecting which demographics are targeted by substance marketing and enforcement. Rev. Johnson says it’s important to “name and claim” America’s history and recognize that it’s inherent in the country’s institutions.

Another solution was offered by local resident and panelist Robin McCardle, who spent 12 years in prison and another two after her release. She says one of the biggest problems is using incarceration as an answer, instead of providing offenders with treatment and resources upon release.

Panelist Mary King, Executive Director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, feels a good solution to mass incarceration is policy change. King believes in raising the age to 18 to prosecute a Michigan citizen as an adult, noting Michigan is one of only five states in the country that still automatically prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults. King says there is a movement called the “Raise the Age” campaign, which wants to give 17-year-old offenders a shot at the justice system’s juvenile division, where they’ll receive services and treatment. King says if the offender commits a serious enough crime, the court still has the option to sentence them as an adult.

Cleary’s program leaders say the ultimate solution is continuing the conversation from today’s event and working together to implement change. (DK)