Request from dying friend begins lawyer's human rights campaign for Michigan prisoners

This article profiles Deb LaBelle, an attorney in Michigan and leader in the effort to eliminate sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for children. She also is a board member at the CFSY.

By David Ashenfelter | Bridge Magazine
on June 18, 2013 at 8:36 AM, updated June 18, 2013 at 8:40 AM
It began as a favor to a dying friend.

But Deborah LaBelle’s decision in 1985 to take over a federal lawsuit at the request of attorney Judith Magid has since evolved into a 28-year legal crusade that has improved the quality of life of Michigan prison inmates, cost the state $150 million for violating their rights and made LaBelle one of the nation’s top prisoner advocates.

“I thought I’d be filing one or two legal briefs and making a couple of court appearances to wrap up the case,” LaBelle said during a recent interview in her Ann Arbor law office, which she often shares with Koda, her son’s large chocolate poodle.

She said Magid, who spent eight years on the case before developing terminal cancer, had already persuaded a judge to order the Michigan Department of Corrections to provide female prisoners with the same educational and vocational opportunities as male inmates. But it took LaBelle 11 more years to get the job done.

“They fought us every step of the way,” LaBelle said.

Read more