Round 1 FY 2014: 15th District Court

Ann Arbor city council briefed on "problem-solving" courts that address: sobriety, homelessness, veterans issues, domestic violence

Ann Arbor city councilmembers were briefed on the 15th District Court as part of a Feb. 11 work session. Last Monday’s meeting kicked off a series of such sessions that will provide information to the council as it looks toward its second meeting in May, when councilmembers will set the budget for the next fiscal year.

From left: 15th District Court administrator Keith Zeisloft, city administrator Steve Powers, judge Joe Burke

From left: 15th District Court administrator Keith Zeisloft, Ann Arbor city administrator Steve Powers, 15th District Court judge Joe Burke. Before the meeting, the men were setting up a slide presentation. (Photos by the writer.)

All three judges of the court attended the session and addressed the council: Elizabeth “Libby” Hines, Chris Easthope and Joe Burke. Court administrator Keith Zeisloft also attended the session, but did not formally address the council.

At around $3.7 million, the 15th District Court’s budget makes up roughly 4.5% of the city’s general fund – which is in the range of $80 million. The budget for the 15th District Court has decreased from a high of $4.2 million in 2009. Staffing levels of the court, according to the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, have decreased from 41 in the early to mid-2000s to 36 FTEs for the FY 2012 budget year.

The district courts handle all civil claims up to $25,000, including small claims, landlord-tenant disputes, land contract disputes, and civil infractions. Washtenaw County has three district courts – 15th District Court for the city of Ann Arbor, 14B District Court for Ypsilanti Township, and the 14A District Court (with four physical venues) for the rest of Washtenaw County. Ann Arbor’s 15th District Court also handles preliminary exams for felony cases – which do not show up in official court statistics.

Part of the basis for the court’s presentation to the council was a recent report from the State Court Administrative Office. It includes metrics on the number and kinds of cases handled by the court, as well as collection rates. The judges focused their remarks, however, on the “problem-solving” programs of the courts – those that address sobriety, homelessness, veterans issues and domestic violence. This article includes vignettes from a session of the sobriety court attended by The Chronicle.

Other topics covered during the Feb. 11 work session included the city’s capital budget and the Ann Arbor Housing Commission. Presentations on those topics will be covered in separate Chronicle reports.

The substantive conversation about the budget and its relation to the council’s established priorities is expected to begin to unfold at the council’s March 11 work session. Before then, a second work session is scheduled for Feb. 25, with an additional session slated for March 25, if necessary.

City administrator Steve Powers is required by the city charter to submit his proposed budget to the council by the second council meeting in April, with any council amendments required by the second meeting in May. The city’s fiscal year begins July 1.

15th District Court: General Background

Judge Elizabeth “Libby” Hines began her remarks by saying that the court works with Ann Arbor police chief John Seto.

Judge Elizabeth "Libby" Hines

Judge Elizabeth “Libby” Hines.

They try to schedule court proceedings to minimize overtime by officers. Court officials meet regularly with city administrator Steve Powers, and city attorney Stephen Postema works closely with the court as well, Hines said.

The court had recently implemented a new system for bringing jurors in. The jurors are brought in only when the court is as sure as possible that the trial will move forward, she said, so thousands of dollars have been saved in jury expenses. Equally importantly, she said, is that the court is not wasting citizens’ time as jurors unnecessarily.

By way of additional background, data from the city of Ann Arbor’s A2OpenBook confirm that the 15th District Court’s jury and witness expenses do show downward movement from FY 2011 to FY 2012 and are on pace to continue that trend this year:

Jury & Witness Expenses
2013	$21,000		$3,835 [YTD, 7.5 mo. into fiscal yr.]
2012    $21,000		$11,682	
2011	$20,000		$18,016

Hines referred to the report from the state court administrator’s office about how the 15th District Court is doing. She noted that the report is unredacted – saying it is exactly the same report that the state court administrator’s office gave the 15th District Court.

It’s a “report card” on how the court is doing, she said. “As you can see, according to the report, I think we’re doing well.”

She offered some clarifications to the report. The section that lists out data by judge is not quite accurate because it includes former judge Julie Creal. When Creal left the court, her cases were not re-assigned, Hines explained. Judges Chris Easthope and Joe Burke covered those cases. [Creal's resignation took effect in January 2012, but she had been on medical leave since mid-2011.]

Also as a clarification, Hines mentioned that the court is not given credit for hundreds of felony cases that the court also handles. There is a special system in Washtenaw County, she explained, where cases that are normally filed in other counties as district court filings, are filed here as circuit court actions. The 15th District Court does not get credit for those. The court kept count last year and tallied 933 hearings related to felony cases in the last year. In the state’s report, she said, that category is recorded as zero or seven. The state court administrator’s office is aware of the situation, she said.

Hines said the report shows that the 15th District Court is a very busy court but has no backlog. She showed the council a slide on collection rates, comparing the 15th District Court to other comparable courts in the region and statewide. “We do a really good job at collecting,” Hines noted. But what she was especially proud of, she said, is that the court collects money in a humane way. The court doesn’t put people in jail who can’t pay, she said.

15th District Court Collection Rates

15th District Court collection rates for 2010 assessments for civic infractions. Collection rates for other categories in other years show a similar pattern: The 15th District Court does a somewhat better job at collection of assessments than other courts statewide or in its region.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, Hines continued. She told the council that the judges wanted to spend the rest of their time describing in more detail how their “problem-solving courts” work.

Three of the programs operated by the 15th District Court are unique, Hines told the council. “We do not just process cases. We actually try to address the underlying issues that bring people to court before us – such as mental health, addiction, substance abuse, PTSD, and domestic violence and homelessness.”

Domestic Violence Court

Hines highlighted two different courts over which she presides. She handles all the domestic violence and intimate partner stalking cases. She also handles the homeless court. Hines explained that since 1998 the 15th District Court has had the good fortune of receiving large grants from the Department of Justice office for programs dealing with violence against women.

For five years the court had several million dollars to undertake a massive project, Hines told the council. The Department of Justice had selected three sites in the United States – Boston, Milwaukee, and the district courts in Washtenaw County. The goal of this study was to determine what works best in the case of domestic violence. The money was used to do lots of things, she said – to develop best practices that are used all over the state and all of the country. There is a grant-funded specialized domestic violence probation officer, who offers support for both victims and defendants.

Hines didn’t go into detail, but wanted to say that at the end of probation, she brings people back from the long-term batterer intervention program to which they were ordered. She tells them they can say anything they want. Almost every one of them says something like: I wish they’d offer this information in the high schools – because if they did, I’d never have been here. Hines concluded: “The bottom line is that most of us who handle domestic violence cases feel that it’s really homicide prevention, if we do our job right.”

Homeless Court

Hines also wanted to touch on the homeless court, which was created in the community with numerous social service agencies and criminal justice players, including: police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and social service providers. It’s called a “street outreach court,” she said. She alluded to an article written by Jo Mathis, editor of the Washtenaw Legal News, that profiled two of the participants. ["Clean Slate: Street outreach court offers fresh start for those at risk of homelessness"] The court actually helps people who are experiencing homelessness help themselves get back on their feet and off the street, Hines said.

Many people don’t go to court if they are homeless, Hines said, because they might have all their belongings in a bag. They might not have received notice that they have to appear in court – because they’re moving from place to place. And they might have other things on their mind, she ventured, like: Where can I stay tonight and what can I do with my kids?

So many times homeless people don’t show up in court and as a result they receive a misdemeanor charge. That means there’s a warrant out for their arrest, Hines said. She alluded to a study from years ago in San Diego, on Vietnam veterans who are homeless, which concluded that the No. 1 barrier for getting them off the street was not food, clothing, or shelter. Rather, it was misdemeanor bench warrants. They’re always looking over their shoulder, she said, and they can’t get jobs, benefits, or treatment if they have a warrant.

Hines described the court as an incredible collaborative approach in which someone works with a social service agency, and if they are really working hard they can create an action plan, and get credit for what they have done. She tells participants in the homeless court that they are just paying their fine with a different form of currency. Rather than paying $150, which the court could never collect, they might do weeks and months of mental health treatment, or substance abuse treatment – and they leave the court with a “clean slate” and a fresh start.

Hines then invited judge Chris Easthope – a former Ann Arbor city councilmember – to talk about the newest problem-solving court: the veterans treatment court.

Before talking about that court, Easthope took the opportunity to praise Hines. He pointed out that she is a nationally known expert on domestic violence. “You have somebody in your midst who is well-known across the country, who is sought after across the country,” he told the city council.

All three of the judges of the 15th District Court are members of the American Judges Association, Easthope said. That group had recently named an award after Hines, for her expertise and excellence in domestic violence work. Last year Hines was the first recipient of the AJA’s annual Judge Elizabeth Hines Award, to honor judges who have developed innovative strategies to reduce domestic violence. Also, the Michigan District Judges Association started an outstanding jurist award last year – and the very first recipient of that award was Hines, he said.

Veterans Court

Moving to the topic of the veterans treatment court, Easthope told the council that because of all the wars that the U.S. had fought, a lot of veterans are returning from those conflicts. Immediately following the Vietnam War, he said, there was a lot of criticism of the U.S. Veterans Administration and how it hadn’t reached out to returning veterans. Now they try to do a better job of that, he said.

Judge Chris Easthope

Judge Chris Easthope.

In 2008, a judge in Buffalo, New York, started the very first veterans court, Easthope told the council. The idea is to recognize veterans for the service that they have given to the country and to make sure that they are not “lost in the shuffle.” It’s important that nobody who voluntarily put themselves on the line becomes lost in the criminal justice system, Easthope said. “It doesn’t mean we give them breaks,” he cautioned.

The purpose of the court is to recognize that something about a veteran’s service might have caused them to go astray. Veterans who saw combat, he said, may suffer high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Veterans suffer from a high level of depression and have a high suicide rate, he said. That’s caused by their service, he said – because they didn’t go into the service that way.

Easthope reported that the 15th District court is now the fourth court in Michigan to start such a program – which includes treatment of veterans in coordination with the Veterans Administration hospital. It involves mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, housing, and life skills. There’s a regular team meeting, he said, where each veteran’s case is reviewed, and a plan is formulated about how to best serve them.

The veterans court docket is “veterans only,” he said. It can involve any war or peacetime veteran, as long as that person was honorably discharged. Easthope also described how it’s possible in Washtenaw County to accept veterans who’ve been dishonorably discharged – even though the Veterans Administration itself can’t provide services to those individuals. The court was just started in November 2012, he said, and already has 20 participants. Generally the term of probation is 18 months, but you can get up to 24 months, he said.

The court’s activity focuses on keeping the veterans drug- and alcohol-free and getting the treatment they need. Through the court, two homeless veterans had recently received housing vouchers and had moved into housing here locally.

Easthope told the council there are not currently any grants available to fund the veterans court. But the veterans court service is being provided at no cost to the citizens of Ann Arbor, he said. Every veteran who is diverted from the county jail is “a dollar saved” for local governments, Easthope said. Of the 20 participants in the program so far, only two have had to spend any time in jail, he said. “That’s real money saved for local municipalities,” he said.

The program runs based on volunteers in the probation department, internships done by students at Eastern Michigan University and Cooley Law School, Easthope said. The 15th District Court was very fortunate to be able to run the veterans court at no cost to taxpayers. Easthope said he expected the program to grow a lot, based on the initial response.

The veterans court convenes every other Wednesday, Easthope said. The team meets at 9 a.m. in the jury assembly room and then goes to his courtroom at 10 a.m. for the docket.

Easthope recalled how he used to scour the city budget as a city councilmember. He said that mayor John Hieftje used to make fun of him for “over-scouring” the budget – for items like vehicle purchases. Easthope concluded his remarks by saying: “We get it, in terms of the budget. We all are really budget conscious … I assure you we are not trying to spend money that we don’t have.”

Sobriety Court

Judge Joe Burke was appointed about a year ago to replace Julie Creal. He subsequently won election to the job in November 2012. He was unopposed in that election. He led off his remarks to the council by saying: “Of the many lucky things that happened to me last year, sobriety court is one of them.”

Sobriety Court: Remarks by Judge Burke

Burke described how former judge Julie Creal had started the sobriety court in the mid-2000s. He described the court as up and running – and running wonderfully – when he took it over about a year ago. It runs much along the same model as the court that Easthope had described. “If you walk into one of our court sessions, you’d be wondering whether you’re watching Oprah, or whether you’re in court,” he ventured. He elaborated on that description by saying the sessions include a lot of back-and-forth conversation.

In a follow-up interview with The Chronicle, Burke described the sobriety court as “hyper-intensive probation,” which follows sentencing. The full-time probation officer assigned to the sobriety court is Steve Hill. The program lasts 18-24 months and includes monitoring of participants’ attendance at treatment programs, their progress in treatment, how they’re spending their time at work and doing community service. Reporting requirements are extensive. Participants must take frequent portable breath tests (PBTs) and urine tests. The majority of sobriety court participants are second-offender DWI cases, but offenses need not be driving-related. Also eligible to participate in sobriety court are, for example, retail fraud (shoplifting) offenders and misdemeanor drug possession offenders.

Participation in sobriety court provides an alternative to incarceration in the Washtenaw County jail. Based on the statistics provided to the court by the state court administrative office, from January through November 2012, DWI offenders in the 15th District Court’s sobriety court wind up spending an average of about 7 days in jail, compared to almost 15 days statewide. That’s balanced against a greater number of sanctions (punishments handed out that are less severe than jail time) – an average of almost 12 in the 15th District Court compared with about 2 per participant statewide.

But the stat that Burke is proudest of, he told The Chronicle, is that 88.2% of sobriety court participants are discharged from the program with full-time or part-time employment. That’s not a credit to the 15th District Court, he noted, but rather to the Ann Arbor community of local businesses – like Zingerman’s or Blimpy Burger – who are willing to support employees as they make their way through recovery. The required treatment program, sessions with the probation officer and drug-testing mean that supervisors have to be willing to schedule workers around those obligations.

Comparing his work in the sobriety court to his 30-year legal career before he was appointed to the bench – most of which was spent in prosecution – Burke told the city council at their Feb. 11 work session: “I like this a lot more.”

The numbers speak for themselves, he said. There is a far lower rate of recidivism, and less jail space being used up. The court does receive a grant, he said, and this year it was $95,000. The team meetings take place on Thursday afternoons, with about 10 people. Participants include workers from the nonprofit Dawn Farm, juvenile court workers, mental health workers, court staff, police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. You really get to know all the people as they come through the court, he said.

Recidivism rate for 15th District Court sobriety court

Recidivism rate for 15th District Court sobriety court: New conviction of any kind within two years.

Burke highlighted the rate of recidivism for people who don’t go through a sobriety court. He described the 15th District Court’s sobriety court as “doing very well,” but not quite as well sobriety courts statewide. The reason for that, he explained, is that the 15th District Court doesn’t operate a “strict” sobriety court, but rather a “hybrid court.” So the 15th District Court’s sobriety court includes not just drunk driving offenders, but also drug offenders, if they are nonviolent.

The previous Friday, Burke told the council, the court had graduated a heroin user – a 50-year-old man who’d been using the drug for 20 years. He’s now been clean for two years and wants to stay clean, Burke said. So if the 15th District Court’s sobriety court numbers on recidivism are a little bit higher, the reason is that it accepts a broader range of offenders.

Burke invited anyone to visit the sobriety court on a Thursday or Friday, to observe how the proceedings work.

Sobriety Court: Court Visit

Until he was appointed to the bench by Gov. Rick Snyder, replacing the retiring Julie Creal, Burke had worked as chief assistant prosecuting attorney for Washtenaw County under prosecutor Brian Mackie. Mackie attended the Feb. 15, 2013 sobriety court session on behalf of the county. Assistant city attorney Kristen Larcom was there on behalf of the city of Ann Arbor, along with probation officer Steve Hill and other court officials.

Judge Joe Burke

Judge Joe Burke.

The hour-long session of sobriety court on Feb. 15 fell on the one-year anniversary of Snyder’s announcement that he had appointed Burke as judge on the 15th District Court. It was not a milestone that was observed Friday morning.

But milestones that were recognized included 11 months of sobriety, when two different participants announced that achievement during their one-on-one interactions with Burke. That recognition took the form of spontaneous applause by the roughly two dozen sobriety court participants who were in attendance.

Sobriety court on Friday morning was filled with longer-term participants – like those with 11 months of sobriety behind them – as well as first-time participants. Burke greeted a first-timer by saying, “Welcome to your first trip to the podium. You look a little scared. Chill.”

The young woman told Burke she’d had a tough week of school, and it had been hard to cram in all of her treatment meetings – but she’d managed to do it. She told him that when she found herself really not wanting to go to a meeting, that meeting would turn out to be the most helpful. Responding to her balancing of school and treatment, Burke told her to not let anything be put ahead of recovery – not even school. He also encouraged her to follow the advice that the court’s staff and her treatment groups gave her – even if it seemed stupid to her. “Just do it,” Burke said.

Most of the interactions between Burke and the participants were briskly upbeat, as Burke generally tried to separate the good news from any bad news. After imposing a sanction of one day in the jail work program on one young woman – for turning in some documentation late – Burke moved to the positive: “Let’s get on to the better things. What are you up to?” Her initial reply: “I’m alive!” She told him about surviving a harrowing ride on US-23 during a recent heavy snow.

For one participant, Burke wasn’t able to find much positive to talk about. As he reviewed recent updates to the participant’s file, Burke described several bad decisions made by the young man, including one to quit his job – without informing probation officer Steve Hill about it. Documentation of his participation in his treatment program was missing and Burke characterized the young man’s behavior as not entirely honest. Burke felt like he’d had the same conversation with the young man two weeks earlier. Burke told him he felt like the young man was ignoring everything Hill was telling him. Burke invited the young man to give a different side to the story: “Argue with me, if I’m wrong.” But no argument was registered. So Burke imposed a sanction of three days in jail.

Another young man narrowly escaped a jail-time sanction for arriving late to court that morning – because he’d communicated by text with Hill. It was a case of sleeping through his alarm. Burke told the young man he’d been ready to issue a bench warrant for his arrest. But because he’d texted Hill and eventually arrived before the session ended, the young man needed only to serve a day in the jail’s work program.

Burke led off another interaction by telling a young man, “Welcome back to regular clothes [not jail-issued] – it’s good to see you this way.” The man then responded to Burke’s queries by telling him that he’d been attending his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day and he’d been doing a lot of homework for his sponsor: writing out 10 examples of how he was powerless; writing out 10 examples of how he’d hurt other people; writing out his life story.

Burke’s interactions were based the review of each participant’s case the previous day by the sobriety court team. And Burke’s conversations with participants seemed to be looking for confirmation or refutation of the most recent reports in their file. “Things seem to be going very well with you. Tell me about it.” Given the opportunity, many participants elaborated beyond summary statements. After telling Burke that things were “fairly normal,” one participant described how he’d been trying to be more honest when he participates in his support group, saying he understood it was not helpful just to say always, “Things are great.”

Strict compliance with all the objective requirements of the program isn’t always enough to satisfy Burke. Burke allowed that one young woman was faithfully compliant with all the requirements, but still had a lot of friction with the court’s supporting staff. He noted she’d had a very difficult session with Hill recently. He ventured that she ignored the supports around her and didn’t show the kind of gratitude that was appropriate: “I think you need to try to be a nicer person.”

She told Burke that she was, in fact, grateful, and ventured that she could try to be more welcoming of the support around her. Burke assigned her to write out a list of four gratitudes every day – then quipped that she could make it five, by listing one for the fact that she didn’t have to appear before him every day. She clarified with Burke she didn’t really have to list that fifth item.

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One Comment

  1. By Mark Koroi
    February 17, 2013 at 10:07 pm | permalink

    Intensive probationary oversight via a program such as the Sobriety Court can make an impact against recidivism, as the statistics suggest.

    Stopping the “revolving door” of drug possession and OUIL arrests benefits the entire community and is a laudable goal of the court system.