Something happened to Jazmine Wells on her way to becoming a prosecuting attorney: she visited a jail.

Specifically, she visited jail as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan through her participation in a program called Project Community. Project Community is a service learning program housed within the University of Michigan’s sociology department that gives students opportunities to both serve others and learn in public health, educational and criminal justice settings. Since she was interested in a career in law, Wells chose to take part in the criminal justice section of the program, and she was sent to a jail in Washtenaw County, where she talked with the people detained there about current events and did art projects with them.

During one of her visits, she noticed one man — a veteran — who looked particularly sad. Wells struck up a conversation and learned that he suffered from PTSD and had been having nightmares, so she asked if he had spoken with a therapist or social worker at the jail.

His answer was one of the things that led Wells to rethink her career course and set her life on a different track that ultimately led her to become Safe & Just Michigan’s new policy and advocacy manager.

“He told me a lot of people here get out before they get to see the mental health professional because (the therapist is) only here for one day a week. So some people never get to see the therapist or talk to them,” Wells said. “I felt really bad and obviously really stupid, you know, for saying ‘Why don’t you just talk to somebody?’ Once I saw that, once we had that conversation, I started paying attention more to the facility.”

During her next scheduled visit to the jail, and every visit after, Wells started to pay more attention to her surroundings. Some of what she saw, such as trays of inedible-looking food, shocked her now that she was looking at it from a new perspective. “Over time, I’m kind of like, I can’t send people here for a living. I would be a horrible person if I did that. So then I became interested in mental health and public defense.”

Wells went on to get a bachelor’s in sociology with a minor in psychology from the University of Michigan, following that up with a master’s in social work in 2020. After earning that, she went to work for the State Appellate Defender’s Office (SADO), where she worked as a mitigation specialist on the juvenile lifer unit. But whether thinking of being a prosecutor, working for SADO or now taking on the role of Safe & Just Michigan’s policy and advocacy manager, her goal has always been the same: make the community safer.

“My reason for wanting to be a prosecutor was that as a kid, I always heard older people talk about how unsafe Detroit was. I wanted to make the city safer,” Wells said. “But as a kid, I didn’t really know anything about anything. Yes, there is crime, but I didn’t know why it was happening. I don’t think a lot of people know why it happens. They just make opinions about other communities without actually engaging with anybody from those communities. I just feel like if you actually engage with people, your perspective will change.”

That’s why Wells strives to get to know people — including her former clients at SADO — before she knows the details about the worst things they’ve done. For instance, when working with people sentenced to juvenile life without parole, she took time to get to know her clients as people, asking them what their favorite foods are and what they are interested in, before she ever glanced at any of the documents or reports that outline the crimes they have been convicted of.

That builds empathy and trust, she said.

Wells was also aware that just her presence on her clients’ team at SADO helped foster empathy and create a sense of trust. At SADO, she worked with people who have been sentenced to life without parole, a sentence that is vastly over-represented by Black people. That is an injustice that needs to be addressed, but sharing certain identities also gave Wells an advantage when building a trusting relationship with her former clients.

“A lot of my (former) clients are Black men from the Detroit area. I’m from Detroit. I was born and raised there. When I get on Zoom and they see what I look like, I think they are more comfortable with me,” Wells said. “I’ve had several of them say, ‘I feel like I can talk to you about anything I feel more comfortable with you’.”

But being Black in the justice system can also be a challenge. Too often, Wells enters a courtroom and sits with the defense team, only to be questioned about whether she truly belongs there.

One of the solutions, Wells suggests, is for more people of color to become involved in advocacy work.

“I don’t just mean that at the grassroots level,” she said. “Being in a policy role takes work. … Unless you’re a part of the ‘good old boys’ network — which a lot of times most people of color don’t have those connections — it’s harder for us to get in. But it is very important for people of color to get into political spaces where they can have a voice.”

In her new role at Safe & Just Michigan, Wells will take an active role in forming the proposals that Safe & Just Michigan supports and in shepherding them through the legislative process. In particular, she is eager to continue her work with people sentenced to life without parole as juveniles by helping Safe & Just Michigan end the practice in Michigan.

“If we’re talking about murder, obviously the punishment has to be longer, but I think saying for the rest of your life I’m going to punish you for this one bad decision that you made decades ago as a minor, I think that’s excessive.  Especially if you have shown progress and true rehabilitation.”

Wells is also ready to get to work on efforts to overhaul Michigan’s cash bail system, which she describes as “criminalizing poverty,” and redirecting the savings from reducing the overreliance on incarceration into underserved neighborhoods.

Ultimately, for Wells, it’s all about helping people who are incarcerated get the rehabilitation they need so they can come home and contribute to their communities. And for that to happen, she knows there needs to be policies in place to support it.

“We actually need to do something to help people rehabilitate and help people get better and help people heal. And then, we need to get them back out to where they’re supposed to be,” Wells said. “I really think that needs to happen.”