Three years ago, Earl Parker was hanging out on the streets of the city's East Side. He wasn't exactly a high school dropout - he had been kicked out of school. A fight with sticks on the school grounds had put him on the expulsion list. For Earl, this fracas was simply the final foul-up in a high school career that hadn't been too exemplary, to say the least.
Without the regimen of classes, he bummed around the neighborhoods. He wasn't into drugs, but he wasn't into anything upbeat, either. He'd hang out at the bowling alley, at the video games, and on street corners. As far as crime goes, he was clean, but he definitely was adrift downhill.
Landing a job seemed a pie-in-the-sky hope. ``I couldn't get anything because I didn't have a diploma,'' he recalls.
Then one day Earl got caught spinning around on a moped without a motorcycle endorsement on his license, a credential that verifies ownership. No, the moped wasn't stolen. Yes, it was Earl's - a girlfriend had bought it for him. But the incident landed him in Judge Leon Jenkins's courtroom.
And life for Earl hasn't been the same since.
The one-time loser is now on a winning route. At 22, he's a sophomore accounting major pulling in good grades at Marygrove College in Detroit. He supports his new academic endeavor with a loan and a full-time job in a taco eatery.
When Earl stood before the judge on that summer day back in 1984, punishment for his misdemeanor could have been jail or a fine up to $500. But Judge Jenkins bypassed those. Instead, he ordered Earl to get a GED (General Educational Development certification), which is equivalent to a high school diploma. ``I told him I'd put him in jail ifhe failed to comply,'' says Jenkins, who later gave Earl a friendly prod to go on to college.
``I always wanted to go in this direction, but I just needed the kick in the pants,'' says the full-time student. ``He [Judge Jenkins] was the kicker. I wouldn't have gone to college without him.''
Then Earl admits that without the legal shove from the judge, ``I could be out there now doin' stuff to other people.''
Earl still talks with Jenkins on the phone and sees him now and then, but both have moved onward - the student to his studies, and the judge to other cases.
Every week, Jenkins hands down ``get your GED'' decisions. During his three and a half years on the bench in 36th District Court, more than 600 people have been sent back to school and have earned diplomas, says the judge. The GED demand can be in lieu of, or in addition to, other punishment, depending upon the offense. If persons receive jail sentences, he requires that they get their GED when they come out, and they're on probation until they do.
Jenkins presides in traffic court, which handles both traffic violations and misdemeanors. He can only make his GED decisions stick if there's been a criminal violation, in which case there's no way to wheedle out of his education edict - his rulings are mandatory. Misdemeanors that reap his back-to-school judgments include driving without a license, driving with suspended license, violation of the school ordinance (truancy), carrying a gun without a permit, prostitution, and drunken and reckless driving.
``Everyone who comes to me [on a criminal violation] and hasn't finished school goes back. No exceptions,'' says the judge.
But what if a person is 45?
``Doesn't matter,'' he says. ``They go to school.''
And if they don't?
``They go to jail,'' says Jenkins, who smiles a lot - but not on this issue.
Jenkins has another surprise up his judicial sleeve for kids who're still enrolled in school and come before him for sentencing.
He makes them write essays, not little five-paragraph jobs, but 10-page thought papers, all penned in their own handwriting. The themes covering subjects as: How does lack of education contribute to crime? Or, how is society served by rehabilitating convicted criminals? His assignment sheets boldly say, ``Failure to turn in a paper will result in your rearrest.'' According to Jenkins, he has assigned 350 themes. And 350 themes have been turned in to him.
The judge says parents are generally behind him on these educational measures, but adds that he ``got a lot of flack from the legal profession, criticizing me for supposedly infringing on their [defendents'] rights.''
Jenkins puts big stock in education. ``I tell the kids, you don't have anything else. You don't have a history of wealth, so you got to make it on your own,'' he says.
Parents often phone Jenkins, requesting that he talk to their teenagers. ``So I bring 'em in, and I sit 'em right there,'' he says, pointing to the couch in his chambers. ``I'm firm, and I don't talk down to them. I talk with them. Sometimes I take 'em to lunch, and I also take 'em to jail to see what's in store for bad fellows.''
It's evident Jenkins has a special kind of charisma that connects with kids on the street. He's six feet tall, casual, and looks like he just stepped out of an Ebony ad. He used to play football too, and is still in shape.
Of course, appearing even younger than his 33 years also helps when talking with youths because he comes across more as peer than parent. And he knows the kids' territory, having grown up on similar turf. Then, there's that black robe he wears - a symbol that's either scary or impressive, depending on his guest's frame of thought.
For three years, Jenkins's crusade was a solo venture. But recently, he put together a network of Detroit citizenry, all volunteers who'll help him reach into the ghettos and try to rescue ``at risk'' youth.
Called the Committee of 100, the organization is obviously misnamed because its roster already carries about 300 workers, more than Jenkins ever dreamed of. There are lawyers, secretaries, doctors, policemen, Realtors, insurance salespeople, clerks.
``We even have a few unemployed,'' he says. ``Not many white people on the committee, but we're getting more. We accept all,'' he says, a grin inching across his face. ``Anybody who wants to work.''
When the organization gets in high gear, members will serve as role models, spending time with youth-in-trouble on an individual basis, a type of big brother/sister program. The committee - a nonprofit organization governed by a board - also plans to implement a 24-hour hotline, free tutorial services, job training, parent-youth seminars, and field trips to acquaint kids with opportunities around Detroit.
Already in place is a scholarship fund for an average student who has surmounted ghetto and personal obstacles. The scholarship is a memorial to Jenkins's wife, the late Kim E. Jenkins, who died four years ago after a brief illness. The judge is now raising their two daughters, Kalynn, 7, and Kyra, 5.
Jenkins gets his moral fiber from his grandmother, Birdie Garrett, a strict and steady disciplinarian who kept a hickory switch by her bed. As a widow, Grandma Garrett took on the job of raising Jenkins, his four brothers and two sisters.
``She had traditional moral values, the kind I think every kid should be exposed to. She taught us that a man takes care of his home. That means he doesn't beg his mama for her last dime because he doesn't wanna go to work at McDonald's.
``And if you have kids, you take on that responsibility. You don't dump it onto someone else,'' says the judge who never knew his own father.
Grandma Garrett also taught the Jenkins brood that ``you're responsible for your acts. Whatever act you commit, you have to be prepared to suffer the consequences,'' he continues.
Jenkins grew up in Memphis where the family survived on earnings his mother made as a domestic worker and on Grandma Garrett's social security. Entering the part-time job market at 14, Jenkins worked during high school and college in saw mills, with food chains, and unloading trucks. He went through Howard University in Washington, on a football scholarship, received a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park, and earned his law degree at Wayne State University, Detroit.
After passing Michigan's bar exam, Jenkins decided that Motor City was ``home.'' He readily admits his adopted city has its troubles, with 25,904 violent crimes recorded in 1985, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics.
Inside the judge's sanctuary, the atmosphere is relaxed. The clock ticks toward five, and he leans back in a leather chair. He's waiting for the arrival of the Committee of 100 board.
``You know,'' he says, ``I look back on my life, and I think about my friends who were with me. Very few of the hard-core poor ever leave the ghetto. Very few.'' Some people in the lower class may have enough incentive and opportunity to leave,he says. ``But not the hard-core poor, the real down-and-out where there is nobody in the prior generation or current generation who has made it out. That's the really hard core. These are the kids we're after.''