Two faculty members put a spotlight on Street Outreach Court Detroit

July 20, 2018

College of Arts, Sciences, & Letters associate professors Francine Banner and Lara Rusch are working on a publication to inform others in academia and in key legal and judicial positions about this successful alternative justice program.

The 36th District court holds monthly court sessions in Detroit's Capuchin Soup Kitchens.
The 36th District court holds monthly court sessions in Detroit's Capuchin Soup Kitchens.
As part of Street Outreach Court Detroit, the 36th District Court works with the homeless and housing insecure community to resolve their debt to society after completing self-motivated action plans. Two faculty members are working on a publication about this unique specialty court.

There are Detroit soup kitchens that provide more than food—they serve justice.

At the Street Outreach Court Detroit (SOCD), which takes place at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, a homeless client asks the Honorable Cylenthia LaToye Miller of the 36th District Court to consider dismissing a misdemeanor charge and fine.

After demonstrating progress on an action plan that may have involved finding housing, attending recovery meetings, or seeking dental care, the judge agrees to dismiss the charge and to significantly reduce the fine. If necessary, the client then is introduced to a private law firm that provides no-cost services to help with issues like custody disputes or landlord-tenant concerns. 

“Looking around the country, there is really nothing else exactly like this,” said Political Science Associate Professor Lara Rusch, who has done volunteer work for the SOCD. “Their program offers homeless and housing insecure individuals the opportunity to resolve their debt to society. Each ‘sentence’ is tailored to a client’s situation.” Rusch also volunteered with the nonprofit organization Detroit Action Commonwealth (DAC), which helped create the SOCD.

Rusch and Sociology Associate Professor Francine Banner are collaborating on the publication, “Building Our Court: The Creation of the Street Outreach Court Detroit,” to inform others in academia and in key legal and judicial positions about the successful alternative justice program.

Rusch and Banner, a lawyer, have observed SOCD proceedings, which occur monthly at Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen locations.

“Court officials travel to the soup kitchen and set up court with a flag and the gavel to establish a courtroom atmosphere,” Banner said. “It may be more personal than a typical court session, but it is taken seriously by all involved.”

They interviewed many stakeholders involved, from the 36th District Court judges and magistrates to representatives from the Michigan Secretary of State to Street Democracy volunteers, on how the collaborative specialty court is a success for both the government and the citizens.

“Courts are clearing dockets of minor offenses that can be handled through diversionary programs, and once the individuals complete the program, tickets or charges may be waived. Everyone we’ve spoken to—judges, the city prosecutor, the defense attorneys, everyone—said this is a step in the right direction when looking to build a stronger and more equitable Detroit.”

The researchers also explored how the Detroit Action Commonwealth—a nonprofit organization made up of Detroit citizens—was successful in lobbying for and partnering in the creation of the specialty court, showing that otherwise marginalized groups can be partners and leaders in institutional reform.

DAC members are committed to having a court that meets in a community space.

“The court goes into a place that clients see as a secure familiar space as an outreach effort. And clients, who go of their own free will, have an opportunity to start fresh and build a civic relationship with their city. It took years of grassroots effort to lay the groundwork and build the network that connected the right people. That, in itself, is impressive,” Banner said.

To date, approximately 250 people have gotten relief through the program, which operates and relies heavily on volunteer and pro bono work.

The faculty members believe that there is such strong collaboration because of the role of the DAC and the positive impact this specialty court is having on people’s lives.

“Detroit, like many American cities, has been particularly affected by the trend of policing the poor or what you might call the criminalization of poverty since the 1990s. We have seen that it doesn’t work,“ Banner said. “Courts, when set up like this, encourage once disenfranchised citizens to get involved again by giving an incentive for self care and positive change. When that happens we all benefit."

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