He was suing his aunt’s husband, who had thrown all of his things outside because he came in after midnight, which was against the rigid uncle’s rules for a 24-year-old kid. So when I challenged the uncle of why he would throw his things out without a court order or why he would even do that period, he began giving harsh criticism of the kid. Talking about, “He ain’t nothing, he’s never gonna be anything, I threw the clothes out because he doesn’t need to be there anyway.”
     I began to ask him things like, “Didn’t you think he could have mentored the young man? He’s fought his way out, when most young people don’t want to leave the street gangs, and you don’t want to give him any support? He’s in community college.” And he began to rage about the young man, “No, I don’t wanna help him. He has to get it on his own, he can go back to the street gangs.” So I began to admonish that guy because I had seen myself in the young man. I saw myself in having left the street gangs in Detroit and gone to college. But I had a supportive cousin who helped direct and mentor me. So I saw the opposite there, and it was so touching and compelling that in the midst of me going in on the uncle I shed a little tear there.
     The good news is that I kind of inspired the young man using my example, gave him some direction, met with him after the case to give him some further direction and support, and he came back two years later and he was a youth minister at his church and had completed his Associate Arts degree and was working on his Bachelor’s degree.

What do you tell these young people as a way to help them turn their life around?
JM: In the crime and drug-infested communities, the most powerful weapon is not the gun, it’s the book. Because education is the way out of poverty. If you want to move into an area where there’s less crime, then you have to be able to afford it, and you can afford to live in a nicer neighborhood when you have a nicer job and you have a nicer job when you have a better education. So it all starts there.
     I always advise them to drop their guns and pick up their books. Education is the key area and I think there’s dual responsibility there, where I think it starts with the states and the government to provide quality educational opportunity. And then it is the responsibility of the parent and the child to access that opportunity that has been provided. Unfortunately in today’s society that opportunity is not provided equally.

Let’s talk a little bit about your younger years when you were running with gangs on the streets of Detroit. What made you make the decision to leave that behind and ultimately find yourself on the other side of a courtroom?
JM: Jail [laughs]. Very clear answer. Jail. I had a weapons charge, charged as an adult at the age of 17, so I was jailed for seven months among hardcore, older criminals. That kind of was enough for me. Plus the pain I was causing my mother while she was sick at that time. So it was those two things, and then as I was saying earlier I had a cousin who helped me get into college after getting my general equivalency diploma. So it was that combination of, one: the deterrent of being punished with jail; and, two, the opportunity which allowed me to escape through education. That’s what changed everything. When I went to college, there were very few if any criminals there, so I had no peer pressure other than to succeed in college.

Knowing your own personal story, once you became a judge did you see jail as an effective tool to turn the lives of others around?
JM: When I was a sitting judge in Detroit I did things that were actually done for me. I essentially received a second chance, based on the charge and the penalty I could have suffered. With the weapons charge, I could have been punished for up to five years in prison. But I had requirements that I finish my high school education and have full-time employment, so that condition is what got me to enroll in getting my diploma—General Equivalency—and from there I went a little further.
     So when I became a judge I would order those who came before me some type of corrective measure as a condition of their sentence. Even if it was prison, I would order that they receive drug treatment and show progress in that area as part of their probation or parole. And I would also attach the condition of completing their education if they had not already done so. I would always attach these types of conditions to their sentence that were designed to improve that person’s life. Probation, particularly for young people who weren’t involved in violent crimes, were the easiest sentences to attach these conditions that were designed to help change their lives.

Outside of the courtroom back then and outside of your television courtroom today, I must commend you for all the good works you do in impoverished communities around the country, with things like the Mathis Community Center in Detroit. Why is that so important to you?
JM: I think I’ve been uniquely blessed or positioned to have a great understanding of the causes of the poverty and the crime and the suffering that we see among the impoverished communities, and, as a result, I feel compelled to help folks in those circumstances overcome them because I was able to do so. I’ve lived that condition, I’ve lived that life, I know that struggle, and I know how to overcome it.
     And next Saturday [January 30], I’m going to be holding a forum in Flint, Michigan to help the citizens who have been poisoned by the city’s water, and get justice, clarification and support. I’m looking forward to that, we’re taking thousands of bottles of water to distribute and then giving some trusted legal advice and to help mobilize for a little more justice from the government who caused this. That’s part of what I do almost every week or so, being involved in some type of activism or charity.

Seeing as February is Black History Month, who are the African-American leaders that most inspired you or who had the most positive impact on you?
JM: One of the reasons that I speak at schools and jails is that during the seven months in which I was in jail, Jesse Jackson came to speak in 1977. And I didn’t even know who he was. He was touring the country with his “I Am Somebody” speeches to uplift black youth and to get those incarcerated to turn their lives around. So when he came to visit at our institution I was so inspired that I told him that I wanted to work with him. He told me to go to college and that if I went to college and came back that I could work with him then. And that’s exactly what I did and that’s exactly what occurred. I finished college in ’83 and I went to work with him when he was running for President the first time in ’84.
     I was directly mentored by him throughout my career and I’m now the Chairman of the Board of his organization, Rainbow PUSH. One of the privileges I got from that mentorship is the strategies and the understanding of the dynamics of society that he received under the tutelage of Dr. King, Martin Luther King, who was Jesse’s tutor and mentor. So Jesse Jackson is definitely the most influential public figure who has touched my life.

Last question: Do you watch the other two top television judges like Judge Judy or The People’s Court’s Marilyn Milian, and what would you say the big differences are?
Yeah, I’m a fan of Judge Judy, so I watch Judy from time to time, and I catch Milian at times. There are certainly differences between Judy and I [laughs]. I think Milian and I are similar, but, like I said, I see big differences with Judy. I admire her ability to get away with what she says [laughs].

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