By Jo Mathis
A dream has come true for Washtenaw County Trial Court Judge Timothy Connors, who will oversee a new Peacemaking Court thanks to a yearlong grant from the state’s Court Performance Innovation Fund.
“This is an alternative—a way of thinking, a way of talking, a way of acting that in my opinion has great validity toward achieving justice,” said Connors, who has already begun to oversee the new court.
The Peacemaking Court will use Native American principles for resolving disputes, using values Connors refers to as the four R’s: respect, responsibility, relationship, and redirection. The concept has been around for many years in Native American cultures as well as courts in England and New Zealand, Connors said, referring also to King Arthur’s Round Table, where all participants were equal and open.
Through this grant, the Michigan Supreme Court is giving the county the chance to experiment and see how it works here and may work elsewhere.
Any case that involves conflict in relationships could be appropriate for the Peacemaking Court, Connors said, citing cases of juvenile delinquency, domestic conflicts, eldercare issues, business disputes, and zoning or regulation issues as examples.
“Obviously, there are plenty of cases where it won’t be appropriate,” Connors said. “You wouldn’t send a rape case to Peacemaking Court. But there are many, many conflicts that come through the courts all the time that are appropriate. The idea is to redirect things back on a path that is healthy for the individuals involved and the greater community that is affected; further, to have more voices heard in the resolution of that process.”
Connors envisions discussions happening in a circle, with much of the work done outside of the courtroom and time allowed for each person to be heard.
Connors said all courts involve people who are suffering—either physically, emotionally, mentally, or financially.
“When we talk about peacemaking, it’s a conscious decision to turn back to a place that is healthy and healing,” he said. “We start out with the idea that we treat everyone who comes to the table with respect and equality. We’re in disagreement. We’re in discord. But we have to be respectful of the other person, and responsible for the situation that has caused the harm. We are dependent on each other. We are connected to each other, and we need to understand and recognize the need to say, `We have a tear in the fabric here. How do we work on improving that relationship?”’
“Peacemaking is the conscious decision to create harmony from discord rather than to foster violence. Violence can be an act. Violence can be in our way of thinking. Violence is anything that creates unhealthy discord and imbalance.”
Participating judges will select cases for referral to the project, and Peacemaking Court staff and facilitators will also screen referred cases for appropriateness.
Project director predicts success
Wayne State Law Professor Susan Butterwick is the Peacemaking Court’s project director, and is confident the project will be accepted and successful.
“This is a unique project in that it will bring several important principles of tribal peacemaking courts into the state court system,” said Butterwick. “This model differs from traditional court justice models in that it provides reparative—or restorative—justice instead of retributive justice; it requires not only an answer to what laws or rules were broken, but what relationships were broken and what needs to be done to repair those relationships.”
She said that instead of focusing only on past conduct, the focus is on past, present, and future conduct, and on collective responsibility of the affected community as well as that of the individual. Instead of addressing the individual through coercion, punishment, and banishment, which she said are approaches inherent in the adversarial system, peacemaking courts focus on healing, support, understanding, trust, and reintegration back into the family / community.
Peacemaking principles are ancient
These principles and values have been around since ancient times, and reduce recidivism because they hold people accountable and require taking true responsibility for actions through a very clear understanding of their impact on others, Butterwick said.
Also as part of the grant, tribal judges and personnel will come to the county to educate those who’ll be involved in the Peacemaking Court as well as the public.
“So it’s a year of exploration,” said Connors. “In a way, we’re in unchartered waters, but we’re listening to something that’s been done for a long, long time, and from people who have done it.”
Connors said he admires a recently retired tribal judge who once told him: “In all my years on the bench, I never ever turned a mind by sitting in my robe from on high and yelling. Every life I’ve ever changed was when I talked to the person out of respect and helped them to find healthy redirection within themselves.”
When Connors accepted the gavel from Judge George Alexander 23 years ago, Alexander looked him in the eye, and said, “Here it is. It’s your work now. Remember: We must be healers of controversy.”
And that, says Connors, is what peacemaking courts are all about.
“We should live the law because we know it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to hit each other over the head with it. We should come to understand that, `Absolutely. This is the right way to live.’”
Legislature created the fund
The Court Performance Innovation Fund was created by the Legislature as part of the FY 2014 budget to supports projects that will improve public service and court performance.
The State Court Administrative Office, the administrative agency of the Michigan Supreme Court, administers the grants.
“This is an example of courts working smarter for a better Michigan,” said Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr. in a statement. “With these grants, we’re unleashing the trial courts’ creativity. This is research and development funding for the courts. These ideas, if successful, can be emulated by other courts. One court’s innovative idea may be the genesis for a statewide improvement.”
More projects ahead
Other new projects funded by the grants include:
• Human trafficking court (Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor District Courts). Aimed at combating human trafficking, this project involves District Courts 14A, 14B, and 15. Prostitution cases will be reviewed to determine whether the offenders are human trafficking victims; if so, courts will offer services rather than jail time. The courts will also collect human trafficking data, educate the community about human trafficking, and create a model for other courts.
• Smart phone apps for court access (Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Circuit Courts, Grand Rapids District Court, and Wayne Probate Court). These courts will use smartphone interface technology to allow attorneys and parties to check in electronically.
• Effective use of social media (Muskegon Circuit Court). The court’s family division will use technology, including Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and cell phones, to contact parties, including reminding them about court hearings and child support payments.
• Automated income tax garnishment (36th District Court, Detroit). The court will streamline its handling of garnishments. Plans include automating income tax garnishment and exchanging data between the Michigan Department of Treasury and the court.