St. Joseph County Court Programs Adapt to Pandemic Realities

Despite reduced utilization of services and fewer funding dollars from some sources, St. Joseph County’s offender rehabilitation programs are adapting and continuing to serve. Community Corrections Director Rose Ludwick, District Court Judge Jeffrey C. Middleton, and others discussed current challenges and opportunities and approved changes at a Community Corrections Advisory Board (CCAB) meeting Wednesday.

The purpose of the CCAB is to manage and provide direction to various court-ordered offender rehabilitation services such as substance abuse and mental health programs, and to provide support to the county’s courts, law enforcement agencies, and other partner agencies like the Twin County Probation Center. CCAB receives funding for a number of its programs from recurring grants.

As it has annually in the past, CCAB has been awarded a state grant under Michigan Public Act 511 (PA511), the Michigan Community Corrections Act. The purpose of PA511 is to provide local governments with alternative sentencing options in lieu of prison for nonviolent offenders. This year, due to state-level funding impacts from the ongoing pandemic and other factors, some funding sources have had their available dollars reduced, or are reducing spending as a precautionary measure. In addition, restrictions and precautions related to the pandemic have reduced utilization of many programs, which is a determining factor in how some agencies allocate funds.

Ludwick said the latter factor applies to PA511. During the 2020 Fiscal Year, Ludwick said CCAB underspent in its PA511-funded programs by more than $93,000 total. Consequently, funds available under PA511 are reduced.

Whereas in previous years, the grant has covered six CCAB programs, it will only fund five under the most recent award. Last year’s PA511 award was $143,255. This year’s award is $113,925, a difference of $29,330. This means that PA511 dollars will no longer fund CCAB’s Domestic Violence Group program.

However, in follow-up comments to Watershed Voice, Ludwick said the cut simply means the program will be funded through other means. At Wednesday’s meeting, CCAB members approved a measure under which court-ordered participants will pay a user fee that funds the Domestic Violence Group. To be resolved under the measure is a question of what those rates will be.

Currently, the program charges a user fee of $600 per person for those assigned to the program under felony convictions. The actual cost to provide the program is $2,093.28. Under a proposed user fee table presented at Wednesday’s meeting, felons would pay $2,100 each. Middleton said that due to the fact that most persons assigned to the program have families, “no one is going to be able to afford that.” Instead, he proposed that felons pay the same fee as those convicted of misdemeanors, which is lower. That fee rate is to be finalized.

Domestic Violence Group Facilitator Discussed

In the meantime, Ludwick said she is working to try and increase the Domestic Violence Group’s utilization. One important reason the program has been slow for the past several months is a delay in hiring a new facilitator. The facilitator works a subcontract position to provide group sessions for two hours per session. Ludwick told Watershed Voice the sessions take place once every other week. The contract allows for a weekly session according to presentation materials at Wednesday’s meeting.

In order to serve in the position, the chosen candidate has to complete a certification course. Over the summer, Ludwick said she and others responsible for hiring the position located a candidate they liked. That candidate was ready to complete certification. However, a death in that person’s office and a COVID-19 exposure delayed their ability to complete the certification quickly. Ludwick said the office has said they will permit the candidate to complete the training soon, but she also said the office has been saying that since the candidate selection was first made in July.

In the meantime, Ludwick said, CCAB has had to cancel program sessions in the absence of a facilitator. Ludwick suggested CCAB could temporarily waive the certification requirement to expedite the position, but Middleton said the facilitator cannot certify participants’ completion of the program without the necessary certification. As a judge, Middleton said, he would thus be unable to order the program as part of a sentence unless the facilitator had the requisite certification.

Middleton raised the possibility of finding another candidate but said he and Ludwick like the current candidate and didn’t want to go through a long and involved selection process again if they could avoid doing so. Ludwick said there may be other ways for the candidate to complete certification in the meantime. CCAB members agreed with Middleton’s suggestion to wait “a little longer” for a resolution to the situation.

Sobriety Court Funding Awarded Pending Paperwork Approval

The Michigan Drug Court Grant Program (MDCGP) has awarded a total of $13,500 to the county’s Sobriety Court. The money covers treatment and legal defense for substance abusers, conference attendance fees for staff, and certain incentives. The award for the 2021 fiscal year is a $1,500 reduction from the previous year. Ludwick must submit budget paperwork to MDCGP by November 2 to finalize the award’s approval. At Wednesday’s meeting, CCAB members approved the request, authorizing Ludwick to submit that paperwork.

Substance Use Disorder Program Makes Progress

A comprehensive Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Program in the county involving multiple agencies is advancing under a Federal grant program. Administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, and Substance Abuse Site-Based Program (COSSAP) funds efforts to identify persons with SUDs as they encounter the criminal justice systems and develop appropriate response and intervention protocols, treatments, support, and alternatives to incarceration.

St. Joseph County Circuit Court Adult Drug Treatment Court Program Director Dr. Barbara Howes said the program will involve a number of different initiatives with various partner agencies around the county. District Court Judge Paul Stutesman said Memorandums of Understanding to govern the program are in place for all involved parties, one of which is the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Mark Lillywhite said he is pleased and excited to be part of the program, which will provide crisis intervention and de-escalation training to St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department (SJCSD) deputies.

Lillywhite said deputies received similar training previously, but the percentage of the department with the training has dropped due to retirements. He said the SJCSD is “not a mental health agency,” and is glad the program will permit deputies to identify when “something is wrong and know what measures to take to get them help instead of taking them straight to jail.” County Commissioner and CCAB member Kathy Pangle called the program “a great idea,” and said, “we need more community police training.”

This article has been updated with more accurate descriptions of the timeline and persons involved in the SUD program and the COSSAP grant.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.