Once upon a court: Project highlights good work done by courts

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– Photo by Steve Thorpe

Marcia McBrien, the Michigan Supreme Court’s public information officer, wants the video series to focus on the relationship between courts and communities.


By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

There’s an old Hollywood adage, attributed to film comedian W.C. Fields, that you should never work with animals or children.

In her first stab at producing a video Marcia McBrien violated both rules. The children worked out great. The animals … not so good.

A new online video series called “Court Stories” aims to tell everyday stories about the good work being done in the Michigan court system. The videos are expected to all be about five minutes long and highlight some activity or aspect of a state court that may not have gotten attention in the past.

The brainchild of McBrien, the Michigan Supreme Court’s public information officer, the series focuses on the relationship between courts and communities.

“We have judges in this state who are trying to tackle the root causes that land people in court,” McBrien says.

“Youth Fitness Academy,” the first video in the series, highlights an Otsego County juvenile court program that offers young offenders a way to a better life through physical fitness and lessons about personal responsibility.

“I edit a quarterly newsletter that our trial services department puts out called Connections,” McBrien says. “A story was submitted about the Youth Fitness Academy in Otsego County. One of the probation officers is ex-military and used to train soldiers and whip them into shape. It was such a fascinating story and they were getting such good results that I thought it was a shame we didn’t have some other way to tell the story. The article was fine, but the subject just called out for a different kind of treatment … a treatment that would appeal to the emotions as well as the mind.”

Otsego County Probate Chief Judge Michael Cooper, Juvenile Officer Wesley Smith and Juvenile Caseworker Ashley Hand are working with young people whose offenses range from something as minor as truancy to criminal sexual conduct. Brian Town of Michigan Creative in East Lansing provided the editing and design for the video.

The Fitness Academy, started in 2010, uses exercise and life skills to instill pride and discipline in young offenders.

They work out and compete in sports and then are schooled in tasks as basic as balancing a checkbook or using power tools.

Last summer they experienced farming firsthand as they built a chicken coop, managed chickens and raised crops.

Recidivism has been reduced significantly among the participants and some of them have even achieved ambitious weight reduction goals.

The program participants did well at managing the chickens, but the film crew, led by McBrien and videographer Barb Brown, found them to be as balky and temperamental as the most self-absorbed method actor.

“The students were great,” McBrien says. “The hardest part of filming was getting the chickens to cooperate. The organizers said, ‘We’ve got this chicken coop the students built themselves.’ So I said, ‘Great! We have to get video of the chickens!’ We go over to the chicken coop, the chickens take one look at us and go straight to the back of the coop and huddle in a hostile little knot.’”

“I tried to coax them to the front of the pen, down on my hands and knees, going, ‘Here, chicken, chicken, chicken.’ The more I talked, the more they pulled back.”

There was later, however, one rooster who fancied himself an opera star and proclaimed loudly in the middle of several other unrelated interview shots.

“Once he started crowing, we couldn’t shut him up,” McBrien says.

Despite the perils of livestock wrangling, McBrien is satisfied that the pilot video serves its purpose. The video project is intended to bring to life some of the ongoing efforts of Michigan’s courts to reach out to the citizens they serve.

“Until they’re directly involved — for example, by being a party in a case — many people don’t see any connection between the courts and their lives,” McBrien says. “But courts have a great impact for good in all kinds of low-drama ways. We hope to tell those stories.”
 

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