FYI: Pilot program aims to keep kids on the 'right side' of law

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

U.S. District Judge Mark A. Goldsmith is looking for a few good men. And women.

Goldsmith, a federal judge in the Flint office of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, has originated a plan to have adults buddy-up with elementary school children in an effort to add good values to their lives and reduce the number of future lawbreakers.

The pilot project is called the Flint Youth Initiative (FYI), and Goldsmith, in a letter introducing the program, hopes it helps “keep young people in Flint on the right side of the law.” Goldsmith said his impetus to start the program comes from his three years as a federal judge and six years previous to that as an Oakland County Circuit Court judge. He’s seen more than his share of people coming through the wrong side of the criminal justice system.

“And I came to the conclusion that we, as a court, should engage in some sort of effort to make whatever possible changes that result, if we could, a reality,” he said.

So Goldsmith said FYI will “try to reach children at a young enough age (in hopes that) we could have an impact in their lives before they ended up in our courtrooms a few years later.”

Goldsmith thought the best way, for him, to accomplish that, was to try to make a “direct connection” to those young people early enough in their lives so that the lessons took hold.

The concept of FYI was formed by Goldsmith. First, he had to run the idea by U.S. Chief Judge Gerald E. Rosen.

“He liked the idea a lot, and he encouraged me to pursue it,” he said.

Next, Goldsmith enlisted his fellow judge in the Flint office, Terrence Berg, to come on board.

“I wanted to involve him as well, and he very enthusiastically become part of our planning team,” he said.

Goldsmith wasn’t quite through rounding up partners for his endeavor. He also called the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Flint, and recruited Craig Wininger, who heads the Flint office, and Anthony Vance, an assistant attorney in the office who is a Flint native.

“The four of us have been sitting down and trying to put the full contours to this program,” Goldsmith said. Since the program is his idea, he became the unofficial spokesman by default. But that’s OK, since “no one around here has an ego about this,” he said.

Goldsmith said the focus is not on him, or his planning team, but the kids.

“No one seeking the spotlight. The spotlight should be on the kids, and how do we reach them. In a nutshell, we want to reach out to elementary school age children,” he said. “We think they will be the most receptive to staying on the right side of the law.”

Goldsmith said FYI will be about teaching those youngsters good citizenship skills, what the law is about, and stress the importance of avoiding drugs and gun violence.

“And we think that, by creating meaningful relationships with kids, and presenting them role models for an alternative kind of lifestyle, that maybe we can have an impact on those children before they end up walking down the wrong path,” Goldsmith said.

Determining success in such an innovative program would be difficult to define. But, Goldsmith said, even saving one child from a life of crime and making “some very, very bad choices” is worth it. To keep these kids out of his, or any courtroom, five, 10 or 20 years down the line, “I think that would be a great success,” he said.

“Every criminal defendant that I see who’s been convicted of a crime potentially faces a significant prison term,” Goldsmith said. “It represents to me a tragedy. It’s a life that isn’t being fully utilized for productive purposes. It’s a life that potentially is harming others. And it’s a lost opportunity for that individual.”

And the damages of that are far-reaching, even beyond that of the defendant.

“No person is an island,” Goldsmith explained.

Criminal defendants often have their own children, spouses, family members and even friends who may be dependent on them.

“And so often times, the victims of a crime in a very real sense are the criminal defendants own network of family and friends,” he said. “So by saving one person, I think we could really have a tremendous impact, not only on that individuals life, but also on the many lives that person touches.”

Not to mention the victims of the crime itself, who also have their own network of people that could be affected.

It’s no secret that the Flint-area has had more than it’s share of crime, some of which is violent enough to earn the city the title as the most dangerous city in the nation.

“Crime is a great challenge here in Flint,” Goldsmith said.

One look at the dockets of federal court is all one needs to do to drive that point home, with an over-abundance of crimes involving drugs and weapons. And it affects not only the networks of those immediately connected to a defendant and a victim, but also impacts the “quality of life” of the community which is “degraded by criminal activity,” Goldsmith said.

It leads to a “loss of personal safety and security, so it’s a significant challenge, and anything we can do to put a dent in this will all be to the good,” he said.

FYI is a pilot program now, beginning at Doyle/Ryder Elementary School for grades 1-6 this fall.

“We wanted to start on a modest basis, dealing with one school, and seeing what impact we could have,” Goldsmith said.

The school was chosen after consulting with Flint Community School’s Interim Superintendent Lawrence E. Watkins Jr.

FYI has two components. The first is a “Lunch Buddy” program, where a suitable adult teams up with a child who has been identified by school officials as someone who could benefit from the additional attention. The pair would meet once a week for lunch at the school. Hopefully, that adult could mentor the child and teach good values. Goldsmith said studies show that intensive, one-on-one encounters like these offer the best hope of creating a positive and long-lasting impact on a child.

The second component of FYI is a “broader kind of approach,” Goldsmith said, which would involve perhaps members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, attorneys, judges and other in the law enforcement and justice communities making presentations on topics such as citizenship, personal safety, and drug violence to larger groups at the school, several times each year.

But each component of FYI requires people, responsible adults who are willing to take on the challenge of helping define Flint’s future, one child at a time. So Goldsmith is having an initial informational meeting for anyone interested in participating in either one, or both, components of FYI. The meeting will be held Friday, Sept. 13 at 9 a.m. at the federal courthouse on Church Street. Those interested in joining the meeting are asked to RSVP to Goldsmith’s case manager, Deborah Goltz, at deborah_goltz@mied.uscourts.gov. Those unable to make the meeting can let her know and arrangements will be made to involve them.

Goldsmith has no idea how many will be at the meeting just yet.

“But I’m bringing a lot of extra doughnuts,“ he said. “We’ve just gotten started, but we’re heartened by a good deal of interest we’ve received so far.”

A press release to media will be issued soon, and Goldsmith said information has already been disseminated to local bar associations and judges. He hopes that word-of-mouth spreads throughout the community and draws in others. People in any walk of life are welcome to volunteer, not just those serving the legal community.

“Any suitable adult would be welcome to step forward and if they are found suitable, we’ll put them to work,” Goldsmith said.

He said if the program at Doyle/Ryder is successful, it could be added to other Flint schools in the future. And if that occurs, other distressed cities in the state could benefit from a program such as FYI and use it as a model.

For FYI, Goldsmith said there hopefully will not be an end date.

“We hope it’s a program that’s still around years from now, and people will look back and say, ‘This was an effort worth making,’ and that it was successful and continues to be successful,” he said.

Rosen said he found Goldsmith’s plan to be “terrific.”

“I hope it inspires young people in the Flint area to think about options in life, and look toward some of the folks in the legal community for developing relationships that could help them later in life,” Rosen said. “Our court is very proud to be part of this, and very happy Judge Goldsmith took this initiative. We’re anxious to see it get off the ground.”

Goldsmith is, too.

“We certainly hope this program will improve the quality of life here by helping to protect our most precious resource, our children,” he said.

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