Getting diploma, GED part of Wayne judge’s sentences

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — When Wayne County Circuit Judge Deborah Thomas doles out her punishment to criminal offenders, part of her sentencing plan is ordering those who have not completed high school to do so.

And about two years ago, Thomas went a step further. She began displaying the high school diplomas and GED certificates of ex-offenders on a wall of her courtroom in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice.

“It motivates them,” said Thomas about the people who come back months later after accomplishing the court-ordered task. “It shows a sense of pride. I have others who come into the courtroom and they say ‘I want mine up there, judge’ or ‘judge, you don’t have to worry, I’m going to get mine up there.’ ”

Thomas, a former Detroit school teacher, has gathered about 40 diplomas for her wall.

One is from DeQuane Curry, 19, of Detroit, who needed to complete a semester before getting his diploma from Covenant High School Academy. He brought in his diploma Dec. 22 for the judge after she asked him to complete it in March.

“I remember Judge Thomas saying without my education there is no path you can go down,” said Curry, who says he will begin college in January to study toward becoming a registered nurse. “It woke me up and made me realize my diploma is the best thing I’ve got going. It feels good.”

Curry, who went before Thomas for a misdemeanor probation violation, said his high school diploma is “something I always wanted to get.”

Thomas thinks there could be more diplomas to come. Because of the $125 fee to take a General Educational Development exam, some ex-offenders don’t have the prized document yet.

Thomas said since a lack of education is part of the problem that led some of the ex-offenders into trouble, she stresses to them the importance of completing their schooling.

“Their job prospects are more limited, they have lower self-esteem. But when they have (the diploma) they have success, they realize ‘I can succeed at other things,’ ” Thomas said. “I have two individuals who have promised me bachelor’s degrees.”

Thomas refers those who can’t read to a local literacy program.

For many, it is the first time they have been recognized for their accomplishments.

“No one ever encouraged them or put anything of theirs on the refrigerator,” said Thomas, who has been on the court’s bench for 20 years. “(The diploma wall) is a lesson that you can achieve. You have to work at it and in the long run it pays off. ’’

Most of the people who come before Thomas are involved in crimes such as auto theft, domestic violence and substance abuse. The average age of the offender is between 19 and 22.

Thomas, who also runs the Veterans Court program, said she gets letters from ex-offenders thanking her for pushing them to finish their education.

“I tell them just because you came through here doesn’t mean this has to be your permanent route (in life),” Thomas said. “We punish negative behavior. We should reward positive behavior.”