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Posted on Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Ann Arbor's 15th District Court seeks to address underlying issues that bring people to court

By Ryan J. Stanton

Ann Arbor's 15th District Court isn't just a place where law breakers go to get sentenced for crimes they committed. It's often a place where people get real help.

"We do not just process cases," said Chief Judge Elizabeth Hines. "We actually try to address the underlying issues that bring people to court before us — such as mental health, addiction, substance abuse, PTSD, domestic violence and homelessness."

Hines and the two other judges with whom she shares the 15th District Court bench — Chris Easthope and Joe Burke — appeared before the Ann Arbor City Council during a special work session Monday night to give an update on how different court programs are working.

Hines, who helped create the local Street Outreach Court for the homeless, presides over criminal and civil cases in Ann Arbor, including a specialized domestic violence docket.


Chief Judge Elizabeth Hines and fellow 15th District Court judges Joe Burke and Chris Easthope appear before the Ann Arbor City Council Monday night.

Ryan J. Stanton |

"Those of us who handle domestic violence cases feel that it's really homicide prevention if we do our job right," she said. "I really think we've saved lives."

Easthope talked about the early success he's seeing with a new Veterans Treatment Court, which he presides over each Wednesday. Hines called it Ann Arbor's newest problem-solving court.

"We're almost up to 20 veterans and we just started in November," Easthope said, adding it's generally an 18-month program geared toward getting veterans the help they need.

"We are the fourth court in Michigan now to start this," he said. "It allows treatment of the veterans in coordination with the VA Hospital. It's a very great program. It involves mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, housing and life skills, and we combine them all into one."

Of the roughly 20 veterans to enter the program so far, Easthope said, only two have had to serve any jail time, while the rest have been placed on a different path.

"We were just fortunate enough to get two homeless veterans housing vouchers, and they recently moved into housing here locally," he said. "And it's so far, so good."

Easthope said the new Veterans Treatment Court was inspired by one started in 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y., and he expects the program to grow quite large.

"With all the wars that we've had, we've had a lot of soldiers returning back home, and this is really a post-Vietnam type of era," Easthope said, describing the court as a way to recognize veterans for their service and make sure they're not lost in the shuffle of the criminal justice system.

"It doesn't mean we're giving them breaks," he said. "But it's to recognize that something about their service may have caused them to go astray of the law."

The judges Monday night relayed the findings of a new report from the State Court Administrative Office, which compared 2007 and 2011 case filings in 15th District Court.

It showed misdemeanors were down 31 percent at 3,109, civil infractions were down 49 percent at 13,894, and general civil cases were down 16 percent at 1,742. The report doesn't show felonies for Ann Arbor, but Hines said there were 933 hearings related to felony cases last year.

"We're a really busy court," Hines said. "We have no backlog."

The report also looked at recidivism rates for those admitted into Ann Arbor's Sobriety Court, showing 6.7 percent had a new alcohol or drug conviction within two years — compared to 2.8 percent statewide and 10 percent among courts of similar size and structure.

Burke, who was appointed to the bench last year and now oversees the Sobriety Court, said the reason why Ann Arbor's recidivism rate is worse than the statewide rate is because the Sobriety Court here is more of a hybrid model — it deals with both alcohol and heavier drugs.

"Sobriety court would allow only people charged with drunk driving in it. In our court, we will allow drug offenders if they're nonviolent and if it's a misdemeanor," Burke said.

"Just this past Friday, we graduated a heroin user," he added. "A 50-year-old heroin user. A guy who's been using for 20-some years. He's been clean for two, wants to stay clean. It was pretty incredible because that's a hard thing to do, and that's why our numbers are a little bit higher."

Hines said the Street Outreach Court is continuing to make a difference in the lives of homeless offenders who enter the criminal justice system in Ann Arbor.

"In this program, it's this incredible, collaborative approach where if a person works with an agency, and they're really working hard, they can create an action plan, and I can give them credit for what they've done," Hines said. "They might do weeks or months of mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment or whatever, and they leave the court with a clean slate and a fresh start."

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 5:52 p.m.

Finding Peace, Harmony, and Tranquility: It is a commendable effort. There cannot be peace, harmony, and tranquility in the individual living experience if the social community has no access to such experience. Man as an individual has the potential to impact the lives of others through his actions and behavior. But, I will not be entirely safe if I take individual responsibility and regulate my actions and behavior. There is a need for social action to help the individual claim the peace that he is entitled to.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 3:12 p.m.

The programs only help if you live in Ann Arbor, otherwise you will do more jail time than any other court in the area. What happens is most people before the court have lost the right to drive, no big deal if you live in AA and get the bus service. Everybody else has no way to get to all the classes the court requires and will be defaulted to jail. When the 15th defaults you, the max is applied.

Basic Bob

Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 4:55 p.m.

No way to get to class? I can think of several options: walk, ride a bike, get a ride, or drive illegally. If you are unwilling to follow directions, prison is the best place for you. I doubt the court is concerned about which meetings people attend, as long as they go regularly. They have these "classes" all over - even Brighton, Saline, and Chelsea.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 3:09 p.m.

Cops with nothing better to do than write speeding tickets?

Unusual Suspect

Wed, Feb 13, 2013 : 5:16 p.m.

Richard: BINGO!


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 3:42 p.m.

They do have better things to do so stop breaking the law.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 3:01 p.m.

In the 1990's, I used to do DUI defense all day long. I noticed that so many of the defendants were Vietnam veterans. The effects of the war continued long after the war was over.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 2:48 p.m.

I am happy to live in a community with an educated approach to solving these complex issues! Keep up the amazing work you do at the 15th district court!


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 2:39 p.m.

Law and order prevailing, District Court has its' place but can also be a catch-all for those with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Once individuals are in the legal system it can be very difficult to move out of, such as successfully completing a two year probation sentence, etc, if you have these issues. Programs to divert and/or support individuals can certainly reduce the numbers in the legal system, and to also help to improve society as a whole.

Linda Peck

Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 2:07 p.m.

I think the courts should follow the law and imprison felons. Help is a good thing, and definitely people need help, but courts are allowing dangerous people to live with peaceful people and the combination is deadly.

Linda Peck

Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 7:23 p.m.

Thanks Green1 for clarifying my mistake. I remember now that District Courts don't handle felony charges.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 7:10 p.m.

Linda, the district court judges in Michigan don't sentence felons. District courts are for misdmeanors. Circuit court judges preside over felony sentencings.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 6:50 p.m.

So Mady, you believe anyone who CHOOSES not to break the law is given Greek God status?


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 3:33 p.m.

Ahhh, another voice from Mount Olympus....


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 2:04 p.m.

Speed Traps do nothing but upset people. On any given day I can only imagine the number of individuals at the 15th District Court arguing over tickets assigned while driving up and down Main Street at the various speed traps they set up.

Unusual Suspect

Wed, Feb 13, 2013 : 5:14 p.m.

This puzzles me, too. The sign clearly says 35. You drive 45. You get a ticket. Where's the trap? Is it that they think the sign should have said, "45MPH... Unless somebody is watching, in which case it's 35MPH?"


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 3:41 p.m.

Where is the "trap" part? The speed limits, which are the maximum speeds allowed, are posted and most cars have an indicator inside of the car which indicate how fast the car is going.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 3:10 p.m.

You called it

Ryan J. Stanton

Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 2:04 p.m.

Another interesting point was made last night when Judge Hines recalled that years ago in San Diego there was a study of Vietnam veterans who were homeless, and the study found their No. 1 barrier to getting off the streets was not food, clothing or shelter — it was misdemeanor bench warrants (which they would get for missing a court appearance). She said many homeless people couldn't get jobs, benefits, treatments or housing if they had a warrant out for their arrest, and so that's one of the lessons learned in going forward with a program like the Street Outreach Court.

Basic Bob

Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 2:01 p.m.

Rich people send themselves and their children to expensive treatment resorts. They are less than 10% effective at preventing a drug relapse. Then they return to the lifestyle. People who can't afford a good lawyer often end up in a program like this. The court pays for a short stay in a detox program, and then are referred to 12-step recovery programs in the community who operate strictly on donations from members. It is over 90% effective. It's hard to argue with that kind of success.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Bob, I agree. as a recovering alcoholic of 8+ years, I think I can safely say that you can go to the most expensive, high-end treatment facility in the world but if the desire to GET clean and STAY clean isn't there first, then it's a waste of money. the change has to begin with the individual.

Bertha Venation

Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 1:35 p.m.

As a VietNam era Vet myself, I really appreciate the guidance, if needed.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 12:32 p.m.

Yes, real people have real "issues", or problems, and they vary from person to person. And when I deal with a problem, I'd like to have the bet tool for the job available. If I only have a hammer, in this case jail, I can't fix a lose nut (mental health or addiction). So it's good that the court has added to its toolbox - they outcomes will be better, for all of us.


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 11:36 a.m.

Underlying " Issues " ???? what nanny state couldn't possibly be that washtenaw county is full of " people " ...I'm sure that normal human traits have nothing to do with this......


Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 1:28 p.m.

He says sitting atop the mountain of human perfection. People have problems. Left unchecked, some problems affect those around them. Smart societies (we're not one of them) try to fix the problem rather than simply locking people away. And we're not a "nanny state." We're an incarceration state with the highest per capita rates in the world by far.