'In America, opportunity is measured by ZIP code'

February 15, 2021

Associate Professor Kevin Early, a criminologist and expert in the field, is featured on the BET+ series "American Gangster: Trap Queens," which gives a platform for people to share their stories.

Kevin Early

Associate Professor Kevin Early grew up in a military family and had his sights set on a career in diplomacy. His calm demeanor, a childhood living in several countries and his meticulous attention to detail makes it seem like a logical choice. 

But life took the longtime UM-Dearborn sociology and criminal justice studies educator down a different path: Criminology. 

He attributes the career change of heart to working as senator’s aide in 1980 on Capitol Hill. “Too much scandal for me.” And then there was a project where he had a series of interviews with a serial killer in Brazil.

While playing a chess game with the  inmate, Early saw the man looking at him intensely. Something changed in his eyes from their previous encounters; the voice changed too. And then the man told Early how he’d slowly kill him — and laughed.

“It’s a laugh that I still hear today. It was terrifying. I realized that there is a fine line between sanity and insanity. It really stayed with me and I went on to study under noted criminologist Ronald L. Akers. He was a mentor who helped guide my research and career path,” says Early, who has nearly three decades of experience in corrections/correctional populations, deviance, prison-based treatment, and substance use/abuse.

“There are people who have reasons beyond their control — be it genetic or physical — whose probability of rehabilitation is low. However, I’ve worked with the prison population for a long time now and I do believe, in most cases, people are not beyond redemption. I feel that’s something that’s important for the public to know.”

Early, a criminologist and expert in the field, has authored/co-authored three books and has appeared on NBC Nightly News and syndicated shows like TV One’s For My Man.

His latest featured spot? The BET+ series American Gangster: Trap Queens. The show, narrated by rapper Lil Kim, gives a first-hand look into the world of infamous female gangsters like Detroit’s Black Family Mafia-connected Brandi Davis and former larcenist Tiffani Rose Peak; Early gives his insight about the choices the women have made and background on the criminal activity. In his episodes, commentary is also included from Judge Greg Mathis and the late Benny Napoleon, who served as Wayne County Sheriff and Detroit’s police chief.

Early says he participated in the BET+ show because he appreciates that the docuseries gives a platform to share “the other side” of the story, addresses racial and gender disparities, explains the motivation for the crime (most often, poverty), and — in the majority of cases — shows a redemptive arc.

“In America, opportunity is measured by ZIP code and these young women took the opportunity in front of them at the time,” he said. “Yes, they made poor choices and there should be  consequences. But make no mistake — these are smart, tough and loyal people. And those qualities will help them persevere when they come out on the other side (after serving prison sentences) and find their way. Tiffani is a business owner now. Brandi is a motivational speaker for youth. Both published authors and mentors.”

Early, who teaches UM-Dearborn courses CRJ 468: Criminology, CRJ 324: Serial and Mass Homicide, CRJ 200:  Introduction to Criminal Justice, and SOC 200: Understanding Society, said mentorship is powerful and life-changing. Knowing this, he strives to serve as one for his students.

He credits role models from his life — like Ronald L. Akers, a junior high school teacher named Isabelle Irwin, and other educators — for helping him discover his path to success. Often the only Black student in his school, Early said racism and bullying entered his world at a young age. He credits these mentors for helping him push past the ignorance of his peers and discover and hone his talents. “Despite what was going on around me, I had people who invested in me and showed me paths of opportunity.”

Now the Internationally Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor and university professor shares his wisdom with the hope of bridging understanding and creating positive change. He blocks off extended time for students to drop in (currently via Zoom) during office hours. He’s served as a student organization adviser. And he’s presented research opportunities to his students.

“It’s leading by example. It’s taking time to listen and learn. It’s owning your mistakes and doing better,” he said. “You might not change the world — but if you touch one person in a meaningful way, you have made a difference.”

Early is featured in American Gangster: Trap Queens, season two, episodes two and four, which began streaming last month. He will also be featured in season three, which will air in 2022.