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June 21, 2014

How to get the bus to stop right outside the court

Michigan has way more court-rooms per head of population than England.  Every town of any size has its own court,  and in a town like Ann Arbor there are two big courthouses, one for misdemeanours, and another for felonies.  There are many courthouses with just two, three or four judges.  Pontiac, a declining industrial community of 60,000, has four judges and a substantial court house.  Novi, a suburb of Detroit, has a courthouse with three judges, even though there is a big courthouse in downtown Detroit.  No city or county wants to close their courthouse, since it is seen as an essential part of community infrastructure.  Budgets are tight, and in some cases, staff have been cut (in Pontiac the next judge who retires will not be replaced) but the courthouses remain.  So everybody has a courthouse relatively near.

The rub comes with transport.  Public transport is incredibly limited, so courthouses are not actually accessible (nor is work, shops etc)  unless you have a car.  This makes justice much less local if you don’t have a car – if you are very poor, or if you have had your licence taken away.  Hence the power of sobriety and homeless courts to help their clients – both help poor people to drive/drive again.  However some offenders have to manage temporarily or permanently without a car.  And they are reliant on buses.  A judge I met yesterday (Tom Boyd who sits in Ingham County Michigan) determined to help his bus-using clients.  He met representatives of the bus company and persuaded them not only to move the bus stop from a block away, to right outside his court, but also to give training to his staff in the bus network and service.  He also persuaded them to give the court a discount on bus tickets and some free passes, so his staff could help the poorest offenders.  People talk of activist judges as if they are involved in politics and policy.  But in my experience of meeting judges, some are just more active and proactive than others.