Detroit — Starting this week, certain Michigan prisoners representing themselves in federal civil rights lawsuits will be required to enter mediation almost as soon as their complaints are filed.

Officials launched the pilot program Monday in Michigan's Eastern District of the U.S. District Court.

The two-year “Early Mediation Program” is expected to save the state money and allow prisoners more of a say in potential settlement language.  

“Many prisoners have legitimate claims, but lack the legal education to successfully navigate the legal system,” Detroit Federal District Judge Victoria Roberts said in a statement. “These lawsuits create a significant drain on state and federal resources. We think many of these cases can be resolved if we can get everybody in the same room to come to a resolution satisfactory to everyone.”

The approach should prove more efficient, said Heidi Washington, director for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"The MDOC is hopeful that the mediation program will result in early resolution of cases thereby reducing the burdens and cost on the MDOC and taxpayers that result from traditional litigation," Washington said in a statement.

The pilot program will be limited to complaints filed in the Eastern District, where Michigan prisoners in 2017 filed 248 civil rights lawsuits, according to the statement. Prisoners represented themselves in 97 percent of the cases, and the majority of those cases never made it to trial based on the pleadings.

Similar program are operating in other locations such as Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Pennsylvania and California.

The project should save on costs for the court, Roberts said, including U.S. Marshal services and clerk resources spent sorting through motions from prisoners representing themselves.  

The program will require court staff to continue screening cases where prisoners represent themselves, a process that usually weeds out roughly one in two lawsuits because they’re prepared incorrectly, Roberts said.

Those that make it through the screening will received a 90-day stay for mediation, but either the prisoner or the MDOC can opt out from mediation if a judge agrees.

Mediations will be held on Tuesdays for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, Roberts said. Prisoners will participate via video conference.

“We’re really hoping that we can shoot for 60-75 percent success in solving these through mediation,” Roberts said.

The program will be run by U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Morris from Bay City’s federal courthouse.

A settlement reached during mediation will be placed on the record, Roberts said. If no settlement is reached in that window, the case will proceed to court.

More than 40 mediators will participate in the program and will not be paid. The mediators are lawyers, but will not offer legal advice.

“We feel like we’ve got a pretty deep bench of experienced lawyers,” Roberts said.

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