Street Court hands down justice, hope in Grand Rapids

Barton Deiters
The Grand Rapids Press

Grand Rapids — The guy at Mel Trotter Ministries named “Mike” sees the cops, the judge, the people in suits — and he wants no part of it.

“We’re not gonna arrest you,” the Rev. Leonard McElveen tells him. “We’re not gonna put you in jail.”

Mike, like so many who are homeless or teetering on the brink, has unpaid fines that mean any contact with authorities could result in incarceration.

With the assurance of McElveen, Mel Trotter’s spiritual services director, Mike approaches the folding table situated in the ministry’s chapel and talks to Grand Rapids District Court Clerk Colleen Mox and probation officer Cori Vanderveen.

An hour later, Mike is smiling. A weight has been lifted.

“This is the only thing that’s been holding me back,” Mike declares to no one in particular. “I can start getting my life together.”

Mike is participating in what the folks at Mel Trotter and other organizations call “street court.” Its official title is Community Outreach Court.

Once a month, a judge from the 61st District Court sets up shop at the Heartside neighborhood ministry along with his clerk, a probation officer, law students from Cooley Law School and others who can help sort out the legal tangles that complicate lives damaged by extreme poverty and homelessness.

Programs also exist in Wayne and Washtenaw counties and since the first so-called homeless court started in California more than 20 years ago, the idea has spread to metropolitan regions around the country.

As Mox uses a laptop to look up charges and fines people have incurred, probation officers and law students talk to the people about their options.

All too often, substance abuse lies at the heart of the problem.

The program started in Grand Rapids more than a year ago at the instigation of Heather Pelletier, judicial clerk for then Grand Rapids Judge Donald Passenger.

Passenger said he was dubious of the program. But he indulged his clerk in overseeing the court every month and quickly became a believer.

“It was the best thing I did as a judge,” Passenger said. “You can watch people transform.”

Passenger said the offenses they deal with are misdemeanors, mostly things like trespassing, public intoxication, minor drug possession — things that result in fines.

But for many of these people, $200 to pay a fine is unattainable.

So they fail to pay, leading to a bench warrant, then to arrest and incarceration, to increased fines that can’t be paid — and the cycle repeats.

“We haven’t had any ax murderers show up yet,” Passenger said. “There have been people we’ve had to send to jail, but nothing serious.”

Street Court comes up with different solutions that allow the guilty to work off their costs in ways that benefit them and the community.

Social workers try to find the person’s most pressing issues. If it is alcohol, they work off their fine by getting treatment for addiction.

If it is homelessness, they work to find ways to secure housing and employment through job training and assistance.

The benefits to the defendants are obvious, Passenger says, but the community also benefits by not having courts and jails clogged with people who have no way of breaking out of the criminal vortex.

“We ask them, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” McElveen said. “It’s OK to fall, but they must be willing to fall in our direction. As long as you’re making progress, we will be there to help you.”

During the November session of the court, Passenger’s replacement, Grand Rapids District Judge Michael Distel, oversaw the proceedings.

One by one, they told the judge what they were doing to improve. One man said he started four months ago and now hopes to get his GED. He also was able to find a way to get dental work that makes him more employable.

One person had unpaid child support, another unpaid income tax.

Two people pleaded no contest to open alcohol violations and worked out a plan to get employment assistance.

“It isn’t fun walking around town with a bench warrant,” Distel tells one woman as he congratulates her on her action plan that includes school, housing and addiction treatment.

Program graduate Angela Gipson, 28, has a record replete with minor offenses including drug possession, driving offenses and failure to appear for sentencing.

Like most people in the program, it took her a little more than six months to graduate.

Now, she says she hopes to start her own business and take better care of her children.

“I have hope again,” she said. “Being in this program has really helped me get myself straightened out.”

Passenger says he knows the program works.

“This makes a real difference in people’s lives that you can see,” he said.