Inside Track: ‘We Can Do Better Than This': Judge Everett Mitchell on Being Visible in Your Community:

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  • ‘We Can Do Better Than This': Judge Everett Mitchell on Being Visible in Your Community

    From a traumatized child to a Dane County Circuit Court judge, Everett Mitchell talks about how his past informs his views on the role of lawyers and judges in the community.

    Shannon Green

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    Everett Mitchell

    April 5, 2017 – He had his career path worked out: As a grocery store bagger, the young Everett Mitchell hoped to make assistant manager, then manager. Functionally illiterate, he graduated from high school by being quiet and not getting into trouble. Grocery store work would be a good path for him, he decided.

    Then he got the phone call from officials from a college who heard from his high school counselor that he was a good student. “Why don’t you come check us out?” they said. “No, thank you,” he told them. He was happy where he was. They suggested he give college a try – he could go back to his job if it didn’t work out.

    There, he was tutored by two women at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas: math teacher Margaret Bell and English professor Daisy Wilson.

    “And they worked with me,” he said. “They said, ‘Baby, you’re a diamond in the rough. Just sit on down, we’re going to teach you.’”

    And he did. But for that one phone call, he would have followed a different path. He kept in touch with the women who helped him along. “I struggled so much. Their love and acceptance helped me a great deal. Both of them meant the world to me.”

    Forever Grateful

    Every day, he thinks about the phone call and its impact on his life.  “I am forever grateful,” he said.

    org sgreen wisbar Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by org sgreen wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.

    Judge Everett Mitchell, now holding two undergraduate and three advanced degrees, is a circuit court judge in Dane County, currently handling juvenile cases. Elected in April 2016 at age 39, he is now one of the youngest circuit court judges in Wisconsin. He completed two years of coursework at Jarvis, eventually transferring and earning undergraduate degrees in Mathematics and Religion at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 2000.

    The women were his mentors – no one in his family had yet graduated from college. “I am grateful to God for just being exposed to something so different. No matter what, I was determined to receive an education because I had nothing left back home. When I received an award for being the top-ranked senior in the Religion Department at Morehouse, I cried like a baby because I knew how far I had come.”

    Mentors like Wilson and Bell helped him at Morehouse and through earning two Masters of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey – a Master of Divinity in 2003 and a Master of Theology in 2004.

    A 2010 graduate of U.W. Law School, he’s worked as an assistant district attorney, as director of community relations at U.W.-Madison, and volunteered his time doing pro bono work as an advocate for those who can’t afford a lawyer. He is pastor at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Madison.

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    Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell explains how lawyers and judges can make a greater impact for justice by becoming more involved in their communities. Mitchell presented at the 2017 Wisconsin Equal Justice Conference, March 10, at the State Bar Center in Madison.

    The World We Leave Behind

    Judge Mitchell spoke March 10 at the 2017 Wisconsin Equal Justice Conference at the State Bar Center in Madison.

    “I didn’t go to law school to make money. I went to law school to fight for justice,” he said at the conference, speaking before about 70 lawyers, judges, and legal professionals attending the conference.

    He brings the wealth of his perspectives with him to the bench. “Justice is not an option,” he said. “It is who I am, it is my way of life, what I am committed to, what my family lives out, what we breathe.”

    All to this purpose: “Because I want to make sure that the world we leave behind is better than the one we have now.”

    A Broader Vision

    Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Richard Sankovitz, speaking at the March 10 conference, said Judge Mitchell’s views offer a broader vision of the role of judge and lawyer, especially for those appearing in front of him. “He understands justice from the street view. The way he does it, it humanizes us as professionals trying to explain the law and the legal system.”

    In his courtroom, Judge Mitchell handles many juvenile justice cases, with children who are struggling, who have been traumatized.

    “When I sit on that bench, what I offer them is not judgment. What I offer them is a reflection,” Judge Mitchell said.

    Justice is not an option. It is who I am, it is my way of life, what I am committed to, what my family lives out, what we breathe.

    He’s been there: under his judge’s robe, his suit, and bow tie, and before he received his various diplomas, “I was a traumatized kid,” he said.

    He couldn’t start learning until age 18 – after he and his sister were removed from their home where they lived with an abusive father. At age 15, he found his voice through preaching. “I developed my voice and a speaking style. Preaching exposed me to so many places and people,” Judge Mitchell said. It also started to help him to heal. “I have been through so much – all in an effort to find a better way for my soul to be at rest and heal.”

    ‘You Are Just Like Me’

    The bench, he says, is a place that reflects justice and fairness. He makes an effort to slow things down, to remember that, for those in front of him, this is likely the biggest moment in that young person’s life – a moment that can change the path of their – and, thus, society’s – future.

    He invites the children who appear before him to sit in his chair behind the bench and have their picture taken. “I want to remind them of who they can become,” he said. He tells them, “I’m no different than you. You are just like me.

    He wants them to understand: there is a path for them. “It may be covered and overgrown, but it is still there. They can forgive, love again, have a family, change the world, and eventually find peace,” Judge Mitchell said. “I consider them the next Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Bryan Stevenson, Sonya Sotomayor, Barack Obama, or Ronald McNair.”

    ‘Sounds Like Dog Kennels’

    Working from the bench has also been an eye-opening experience for Judge Mitchell. For those children in the juvenile justice system, it isn’t about the school-to-prison pipeline. “It is the child welfare to delinquency to adult prison pipeline that’s active right now in our state,” he said.

    That pipeline takes traumatized, abused, neglected children and does little to help them. Most of these children are undereducated and suffering from a lack of resources – a situation that resonates with Judge Mitchell.

    Of all the experiences he’s had as a lawyer, perhaps one of the most life-changing was that of working as a pro bono attorney. “Sometimes people need to be given hope, and that hope requires some of us to make the sacrifice to be present with them,” Judge Mitchell said. “So I started this four-year pro bono journey, representing families, children, fathers and mothers, grandmothers, activists, the incarcerated, homeless, the mentally ill,” with the goal of ensuring that the community sees the justice system as just.

    “It was through these cases that I learned to witness and experience the system through the eyes of countless moments of inequality, and too many moments of disrespect.”

    It is an experience that influences his philosophy on the bench.

    “I’m trying to find out how we can move from trauma-informed care as an idea to trauma-informed practice,” Judge Mitchell said. “So we make sure that our children are not being put into a system that ultimately puts them more at risk for adult prison.”

    Soon after taking the bench, he heard a case involving a boy at Lincoln Hills youth prison charged with an adult-court felony. Wanting to see the place where he was sending the children who appear before him, he and other legal professionals – court workers, district attorneys, and others, visited the prison in Irma operated by the Department of Corrections.

    On their visit, he asked to see solitary confinement – or “restrictive housing” as the officials at Lincoln Hills call it, where young inmates are confined 23 hours per day. “These children were in these small rooms, beating on walls, sounding like animals,” Judge Mitchell said.

    “Can’t we do better than this?” he asks.

    Out In the Community

    The visit to Irma was prompted out of his philosophy that judges and lawyers need to be involved in the communities they serve.

    “What is it that we can do as attorneys to make sure we are not sending these children to places where it sounds like dog kennels?” Judge Mitchell said.

    So many people caught up in the justice system have no one to help them. “They stand alone,” he said. “Sometimes a lawyer may be the only advocate they have.”

    Judge Mitchell believes that a tremendous potential exists to change the outcome for those involved in the justice system when a lawyer is on their side.

    “People need to be able to find you. And when they can’t find you, they believe that lawyers don’t care, when I know that there are so many in our community who do,” he said.

    The True Measure

    It is important for lawyers to be visible and approachable. Lawyers can make a difference, once they become involved.

    “The training we have been given, regardless of what side you are on, provides another way to engage in the discussion, because you’re able to wade through the bullshit and get to the core of the issue.”

    He quotes lawyer and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, writing in his book, Just Mercy: “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

    “That’s why I advocate for more lawyers to be out in the community, because it makes a difference when you stand up for justice,” Judge Mitchell said.

    The Forces Behind Mass and Disparate Incarceration in Wisconsin

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    “The forces driving disparities, they are deeply rooted,” said Marquette University Law Professor Michael O’Hear, who studies sentencing and punishment and provided a foundational background on the state’s disparate incarceration rates.

    O’Hear spoke at a recent symposium on the issue of mass and disparate incarceration spearheaded by State Bar President Fran Deisinger. Deisinger called on judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law professors, and other stakeholders in the criminal justice system to facilitate the conversation on the State Bar’s role in addressing mass and disparate incarceration, issues that have long plagued Wisconsin.

    O’Hear said the social costs of mass and disparate incarceration, not to mention the great expense, raises the concern that over the long run, incarceration today will breed more crime and incarceration in the future.

    For more information, see “Mass and Disparate Incarceration in Wisconsin: It's Our Problem,” InsideTrack, March 1, 2017.