Outreach Court: Judge believes in innovative approach to reach homeless

A former prosecutor, Judge Elizabeth Hines is a strong proponent of judicial efforts to help the homeless.

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

During her first day as a newspaper reporter at The Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, Judge Elizabeth “Libby” Pollard Hines, of the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor, learned she was admitted to the University of Michigan Law School. 

“I turned in my resignation on my first day on the job,” Hines said.

She has never looked back.

Her decision to eschew journalism for a law career took inspiration from her father, the late Hon. John B. Osgood.

“As corny as it may sound, he loved the law. So do I,” Hines said. “He also taught my sisters and me that our word was important. Be honest work hard, be respectful of everyone.”

A Washtenaw County prosecutor for 15 years and a jurist since 1992, Hines embraced her father’s words by developing innovative approaches to reach the underserved. 

“Law was a career where you could help people get the support they need,” Hines said.
In 2005 Hines attended a Rotary Club meeting where she heard San Diego public defender, Steve Binder, talk about the homeless court program in his city. The San Diego program aims to
increase the court’s accessibility to the homeless population by taking a proactive, rather than a punitive approach.

Binder’s initiatives spurred Hines to personally call local law enforcement and social service agencies. The eventual result was the  Ann Arbor Street and Outreach Court.  By all accounts, it was the first  court in Michigan to specifically work to remedy the problems of the homeless.

Local law enforcement agencies, social workers and prosecutors provided her with a groundswell of  collaboration for the homeless court concept.

“There were a lot of people who stepped up from the community,” Hines said. “It was the most flexible way of treating a non-violent offender.”

“Before this we saw the same people over and over again. These were people who were sent to jail because they  didn’t respond to outstanding warrants. They had a bad taste for the courts and the police,” Hines said. “This just seemed like a better way to do it.”

The people who come before the Street and Outreach Court are first referred to the court by a social service agency. Often they are in the system because they have drug or alcohol related problems that contributed to their plight, Hines noted.

“I have seen people from all walks of life who have come to my court with substance abuse, physical and mental health issues,” Hines said. “I was really lucky growing up. It could have been me. It could be anyone.”

Before anyone appears in Street Outreach Court they have received an action plan designed by the appropriate social services agency to help get  them back on their feet.  Once the plan is implemented the court  works with them to help them comply with the arrangement.

“It’s a win-win, helping them to find the tools to stop the behavior that brought them to court,” Hines said. “We are saving jail costs that are usually more than any fines that were owed. The  biggest growing segment of the homeless population is the children. If  you help the parents you help the children.”

While Hines credits the legal and social services community for the successful establishment of the Street Outreach Court, her colleagues offer another  perspective.

Brant Funkhouser, a public defender in Hines’ courtroom for eight years, said Hines created an inclusive environment for her co-workers and the people who came into her courtroom.

“She totally had a great idea about how this would work. It became a place where everyone felt respected and listened to by her.

“This would never have happened without Libby. She gave us an outline and a consensus, and she wasn’t afraid to change something if there was a better idea,” said Funkhouser. “She did so much footwork before we ever met, she read the whole book herself. She didn’t assign it to anyone.”

To make those who appear in her courtroom more at ease Hines found a conference room to accommodate the bi-monthly sessions.

“The sessions are held in a different building because people are  more comfortable there,” Funkhouser said. “She packs up her robe, and even the flag. She is just so good to people. She didn’t have to do that.”

Patricia Reiser, counsel for indigent defendants and a former Washtenaw County assistant prosecutor, has worked with Hines for 17 years.

“She’s one of those people who is friendly and nice but hard-working and smart,” Reiser said. “She isn’t afraid to show compassion. The Street Outreach Court is fueled by compassion.”
Like Funkhouser, Reiser found that Hines’ ability to lead by example led to the success of the Street Outreach Court.

“She is very good at thinking outside of the box, at being creative when it comes to helping people find the right direction,” Reiser said. “She is willing to take an extra step.”

Her local contemporaries aren’t the only ones to recognize Hines’ willingness to go the extra mile. She has been lauded for her work for the homeless and victims of domestic violence by numerous organizations.

In 2012 the American Judges Association (AJA) created the Judge Elizabeth Hines Award,  an annual honor that recognizes judges who have pioneered new strategies to decrease incidents of domestic violence. In addition, Hines, who also presides over the domestic violence docket in her district, was the first recipient of the award.

“I can’t possibly put into words how touched and honored I was to think that colleagues from around the U.S. and Canada, friends in the AJA, chose to create an award for judicial leadership in the area of domestic violence and name it after me. To know that it will be awarded every year to one judge in the U.S. or Canada is something I could never even imagine.  I was taken completely by surprise,” Hines said.

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