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Kalamazoo Defender, Outside Agencies Create 'Village' to Aid Clients

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Earlene McMichael |WMUK
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Public defender’s offices provide free legal help for criminal defendants who can’t afford an attorney. But Kalamazoo County’s office also provides assistance with substance abuse, mental health, employment and other challenges. The approach is believed to be breaking new ground.

Kalamazoo Defender marked one year of operation in July. From the start, it declared that it would take a wholistic approach. It’s hired two social workers to connect defendants with community agencies. Now, outside agencies will have space within its walls to create “one-stop shopping” for social services to help its clients live healthier lives and reduce recidivism.

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Credit Courtesy photo | Kalamazoo Defender
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“I am unaware of this particular arrangement being used in any other defender office," says Joshua Hilgart, executive director of Kalamazoo Defender.

The shared space is called “The Village.” Initially, about a dozen organizations will have offices on part of the second floor of the Comerica Building in downtown Kalamazoo at 151 S. Rose St., where Kalamazoo Defender is headquartered. Kalamazoo Defender currently occupies the third floor and some of the second floor. Some partners may do virtual services only due to the pandemic. Others hope to provide in-person assistance. Doors could open as early as September.

The plan is to secure more funding so the entire second floor can be filled with community agencies and groups. Hilgart says he hopes to open The Village to the general public as well, after the project’s first year. 

We decided it would be much better to bring the services to the client. Those service providers can work together to coordinate care in a much more expedient way.

More than 60 percent of the some 5,000 defendants Kalamazoo Defender served in its first year battled at least one serious life challenge, among them unstable housing, mental illness, joblessness or addiction, Hilgart estimates.

“We decided it would be much better to bring the services to the client," says Hilgart, noting it'll reduce the number of buses clients have to take in order to access the services they need. "Those service providers can work together to coordinate care in a much more expedient way.”

'Getting that second chance'

Michigan Works! plans to have a career coach onsite. Dallas Oberlee, its local director of program operations, says it's hard for those with criminal records to find jobs, and that's where its interview and resume writing coaching helps.

"Getting that second chance is really important" so individuals don't return to a life of crime, says Oberlee.

Jeff Patton, chief executive officer of Kalamazoo Community Mental Health, now called Integrated Services of Kalamazoo, expects to have peer navigators at The Village to link defendants and their family members with mental health services.

It brings together people and it shows that people are really caring about those that are less well off and particularly those going in and out of the criminal justice system

He says The Village is an innovative concept. "It brings together people and it shows that people are really caring about those that are less well off and particularly those going in and out of the criminal justice system," Patton says.

'Chronic social needs'

Clinical nurse leader Michelle Smith of Bronson Healthcare says the hospital is involved because it wants a healthier community, and a trend she's noticed in its emergency rooms shows action is needed.

According to Smith, patients with 10 more more trips to Bronson's ER often have unmet social needs, such as homelessness and mental health, on top of the health reason for which they're seeking treatment.

“The patients I’m seeing with chronic health needs also have chronic social needs and they’ve been living with those for years. And they didn’t have the right mentoring and support," Smith says. Some also have criminal histories. "They didn’t have the social resources, and they just get deeper and deeper in a well.”

(The goal is to) live the life that is under their control and frees them from some of the barriers that lead them into the criminal justice system

Hilgart says over $180,000 in grants will cover the first year of the program. Funders include the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, and Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation.

He says it's essential that those who utilize public defender services are treated with dignity, and that they receive the help they need to set their lives on a better path.

The goal is to "live the life that is under their control and frees them from some of the barriers that lead them into the criminal justice system and into all of these other collateral issues that compound their difficulties," Hilgart says.

On-site presence

Among service providers planning to be on-site are: Borgess and Bronson hospitals, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Family Health Center, Gryphon Place, Housing Resources Inc. and Kalamazoo County Mental Health (now Integrated Services of Kalamazoo).

Other partners include Michigan Works!, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Open Doors, Ministry With Community, Recovery Institute of Southwest Michigan, Inc.; WMU School of Social Work, Kalamazoo County Bar Association and the Kalamazoo Public Library.

Hilgart says WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine will help to measure outcomes.

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