Instead of fines, jail time, offenders pay it forward at this Detroit court

Mar 9, 2018

For most misdemeanor offenses in Michigan, the likely punishment is a fine, jail time, or both. But each Wednesday in Detroit’s 36th District Court, a different vision of justice plays out.

That vision is based on the principles of restorative justice, the backbone of the Southwest Detroit Community Justice Center, which operates Detroit’s only community court.  

Tonya Phillips is the Center's executive director. She joined Stateside along with Treonna Rhodes, a recent graduate of the program, to talk about the philosophy and impact of the Community Court.


Listen above for the full conversation, or read highlights below.


The Community Court model: “A third option”  


The Community Court serves four Southwest Detroit zip codes, offering individuals the opportunity to have eligible misdemeanor charges dismissed upon their successful completion of the program.


While traditional forms of punishment can drive a wedge between offenders and the community, “a Community Court really involves the judicial system and the community working together to solve complex issues,” Phillips said.


On an individual level, this allows participants to be “integrated into the community in a positive way,” Phillips said. “Instead of your traditional penalties like jail or high fines that a lot of folks can’t afford, we’re looking at a third option, and that’s to give back to the community. Community Court views community service as a form of restitution.”


That service occurs in a team atmosphere at various partner sites throughout Southwest Detroit. One such site is Clark Park, where Treonna Rhodes completed her service. In addition to serving hot chocolate and helping children skate at the neighborhood ice rink, Rhodes was able to connect with other people in the program, and even learn some Spanish thanks to a fellow participant.


According to Phillips, such an experience is common. “We do our best to create an environment of success, and when you create an environment where people can succeed, where you make it easy, where the system is not trying to push against you, then people do succeed,” she said.


That success can be long lasting. “Oftentimes, even when the program has ended,” Phillips said, “people continue to volunteer to stay engaged, and those partnerships and relationships and that support system last a lifetime.”


In addition to community service requirements, the program has a designated caseworker that works with participants to address life barriers such as access to employment, education, and healthcare, Phillips said.


By recognizing the circumstances within an individual’s life, the Community Court model proves to be an effective form of alternative, or “problem-solving" justice, Phillips said. “When you look at the person as a person, as a human being, not just a number, not just a stat, not just an incident, then crime actually goes down, safety increases, and the overall quality of our life in our communities improve.”


The court, in part, measures its success on participants’ success, and boasts a 90 percent completion rate. That means most cases result in dismissal. For participants, it means “walking away with a second chance and a clean slate,” Phillips said, without “the burden of a criminal record.”


Phillips is hopeful that the model will be expanded across Detroit and spread to other locations in Michigan. “I think the future is bright for Community Court,” she said.


(Subscribe to the Stateside podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or with this RSS link)