New Ann Arbor program supports those at risk of becoming involved with criminal justice system

Supportive Connections, a new Ann Arbor city program designed to provide support for those at risk of becoming involved or reinvolved with the criminal justice system, is now open for referrals.

Described as a "deflection program," Supportive Connections works through a combination of counseling, referrals, and partnerships with outside programs like Dawn Farm. It also has a limited amount of direct funding that can go toward substance abuse programs, education applications or materials, transportation, and other situations on a case-by-case basis. A professional case worker addresses participants' needs at an individual level.

Supportive Connections Program Director Karen Field cites substance abuse, mental health, physical health, and education as some of the factors that Supportive Connections is equipped to address in order to provide support for those who may be in danger of entering or reentering the system. 

"We are a voluntary, non-coercive program," Field says. "We’re not based in the courts or in law enforcement. We rely on community, and anybody can refer to our program. Somebody can even call for themselves."

Another unique aspect of the program is its broad criteria for acceptance. Anyone who lives, works, or goes to school in Ann Arbor is eligible, and the program's definition of those terms is open-ended. For example, Field says the program would accept someone who took adult education classes in Ann Arbor, had a child in Ann Arbor schools, or had any source of employment in the city.

"If you’re asking for money on the streets, residing here permanently, or sleeping on someone's couch, sleeping in the shelter, sleeping in the park, whatever it may be, we want to take into account that some of the people that might benefit from our program can be transient in nature," she says.

Field says the program was born from a collaboration between several city officials, including newly elected 22nd Court Judge Arianne Slay (formerly a deputy Ann Arbor city attorney) and Ann Arbor City Administrator Milton Dohoney Jr. 

Field, who was an assistant prosecuting attorney for Washtenaw County for over 23 years,  notes that she and others were drawn to the program because they could see the courts' limits in addressing some of the consistent issues that led individuals to become involved in the justice system.

"I retired from that position to take this position because I was interested in restorative justice," Field says. "... What I've seen is that sometimes people do well when they have assistance and support, and then if those support systems aren't built up or they fail, then they come back and we see them again in the system. I think especially when someone has long-term substance abuse or mental health concerns, it’s so easy to fall off track."

Field believes programs like Supportive Connections can be helpful in addressing those patterns in a way that the rest of the justice system cannot.

"Our system's not structured for things that don't go away," she notes. "They expect once you've gone through the program, you are cured, you're done, you're never going to have this as a problem. That’s just not how it works. Life gets messy and it shifts. We need to adjust for those shifts. ... We're hoping to be able to come into a lot of these people's lives to help them regulate those shifts and figure out ways to navigate them."

For more on Supportive Connections, click here.

Sabine Bickford Brown is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at
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