Calhoun County

Calhoun County Public Defenders Office adds staff social worker to deal with issues behind crimes

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.

At the root of the majority of crimes are underlying issues that rarely get addressed. This is about to change in Calhoun County with the addition of a social worker in the Public Defender’s Office.

David Makled, the county’s Chief Public Defender and director of that office, says resources and supports are available for those who commit crimes it goes a long way to reducing jail or prison time and recidivism. These were among the benefits he saw when he represented youth in a Juvenile Drug Court while he was in private practice in Barry County. He also saw these same benefits while working as a Family Division Court referee in Calhoun county.

“This is something I have wanted to do since we opened (the Public Defender’s Office) here in 2019,” Makled says.

He and his staff are in the midst of interviewing candidates this week to fill the social worker position. Once hired, Calhoun County’s Public Defender’s Office will be the 11th in Michigan to have a social worker as part of their team of 18 defense attorneys.

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission will cover the cost of the social worker position in Calhoun County as it has done and will do with each participating county as part of its Social Worker Defender Project.

In 2016, the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, in partnership with the Urban Institute, was awarded a Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) grant to develop, implement, and measure the impact of social worker involvement in public defense representation for adults facing criminal charges. 

The model developed through these efforts was the Social Worker Defender Project (SWDP). The goal of the project is to reduce incarceration rates by lowering or eliminating jail and prison sentences for participants in favor of appropriate community alternatives. It also is working to decrease recidivism through the increased use of treatment and educational programs, according to the project’s manual. 

In reaching these goals, the Social Worker Defender Project seeks to: decrease reliance on incarceration, increase advocacy for clients, and increase collaboration between criminal justice stakeholders and social service providers.

Makled says social workers will work with clients who have committed crimes that aren’t considered serious offenses but that would still result in lengthy prison sentences. These clients must be willing to work with the social worker who will identify resources and support services that will address the root causes that contributed to their entry into the criminal justice system.

Makled says his office annually handles close to 3,000 misdemeanor cases and 1,700 felonies cases.
“When we get clients, we get all kinds of situations and some of the clients’ charges are so severe, they’re going to go to prison for a lengthy period of time and when that happens, there won’t be community-based sentencing opportunities for them,” Makled says. “Then there’s another group that may not be interested in participating.”

The clients who are most likely to be given the opportunity to work with the social worker are those facing a significant jail sentence and those who have an interest in addressing the underlying issues that led them to commit a crime. Makled says these issues include unmanaged mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse or a troubled home life.

“The majority of our clients would qualify,” he says. “Our primary focus is on someone who could go to jail or prison. Our goal is to identify those people as early as possible so we can provide alternatives to incarceration. This doesn’t mean they won’t get jail time or have other consequences. But, through this program, we can present the court with alternatives and show that the client has a track record because of their participation. If they’re participating before their sentencing, it puts them in a better position and gives the court a better more complete picture of the client and creates other alternatives.”

Calhoun County District County Judge Tracie Tomak says most defendants do have underlying factors contributing to their being in the criminal justice system.

“I can tell you that if a person enters a guilty plea or is found guilty at trial, the probation department screens them for underlying issues,” Tomak says. “If you put someone on probation to address underlying issues it helps the person convicted. If it helps at the beginning stage instead of the end it makes a difference. Getting treatment sooner sometimes can result in a plea of a lesser charge.”

Defense attorneys in Makled’s office will identify clients who meet the criteria and benefit from these alternatives then make referrals to the social worker who will do the assessments and screenings and coordinate services and linkages to community resources, Makled says.

The goal, he says, is to have the social worker do a sentence mitigation report to provide the court with a more complete picture of “our clients – their history, background, where they messed up and their successes – so the court can make a more informed decision and recommend to the court a sentence focused less on incarceration and also allows the client to make progress on the things they’re working on. The (social worker) will be part of the defense team, but supporting clients in a different way by addressing issues and getting them services.”

While he says he knows there is likely to be some pushback from those who don’t think his clients deserve the opportunities through the Social Worker Defender Project, he says it makes sense from a societal and financial standpoint.

“We could spend a substantial amount of money to have them in the local jail for one year or have them out there as productive and contributing members of the community,” Makled says. “Funding for this position is coming entirely from the state. The county is not paying for this, but they believed it’s a worthwhile investment of resources.”

Proven successes

Genesee County served as the pilot location for the Social Worker Defender Project. But, the Public Defender’s Office in Muskegon County was doing similar work well before the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission began the social worker project and made funds available. Makled traveled to Muskegon to see how they were getting it done.

Muskegon County’s Public Defender’s Office was the first in Michigan to have a social worker on staff, says Fred Johnson, director of that office. He says the credit for this goes to Manda Mitteer, a staff attorney with a Master’s degree in Social Work, and Chad Catalino, who has gone on to be the director of the Allegan/VanBuren County Public Defender’s Office.

“Chad and Manda applied for a grant from the Bronx Defenders based out of the Bronx in New York,” Johnson says. “They are the ones who saw it and had the insight and put it in place.”

The Bronx Defenders is a public defender nonprofit that is radically transforming how low-income people in the Bronx are represented in the justice system and, in doing so, is transforming the system itself, according to its website.

“We have pioneered a groundbreaking, nationally recognized model of defense called holistic defense that achieves better outcomes for our clients. Each year, we defend 27,000 low-income Bronx residents in criminal, civil, child welfare, and immigration cases, and we reach thousands more through our community intake and outreach programs,” says a statement on the website.

Johnson said he, Mitteer, and Catalino were trained in 2015 through the Bronx Project.

“When we did it, there were 23 holistic organizations on the Bronx Model and we were the first in the state of Michigan. The Bronx funded us with a $10,000 grant that covered expenses and training,” Johnson says.

Today, two social workers and 12 social work interns work with Johnson and his team. The cost of the social workers is covered by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission and the interns don’t cost the county anything.

“In Social Work you have to have 240 hours of community service to get a degree. Our interns come in on shifts for nine months and provide services to the county at no charge,” Johnson says. “Manda figured out a way to provide resources at no cost to the county. There will be social work students who need to work in the community to get credits to get their degree. We have been told by their professors that we provide them with the best internship opportunities in the state because they’re not paper pushers or answering phones.”

Social workers in Johnson’s office reach about 30 percent of the 10,000 clients annually served. They can be facing charges including, felonies, misdemeanors, neglect, and abuse. “We are known to cover all those bases,” Johnson says.

He has seen firsthand the positive impact that the social workers in his office are making.

“I had this one guy I must have represented six or seven times for driving on a suspended license and he was accumulating a lot of fines that were costing a lot of money that he couldn’t pay. He told me that he couldn’t read so he couldn’t pass the written driver’s test,” Johnson says. “I matched him up with a social worker who went to the Secretary of State’s office with him and read him the exam and he passed and got his license.”

On Tuesday, Johnson was able to get a woman who is schizophrenic and self-medicating with heroin out of jail. The judge allowed her to go home because she is entering a substance abuse program that a social worker connected her with.

“She gets to go home, keep her job, and gets to be with her kids,” Johnson says. “The folks who face serious consequences are the most eager to try this and work with our social workers.”

However, this work does not always involve opportunities for someone to serve a lesser or reduced sentence or go home as was the case with a client who was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Johnson says his client admitted to killing someone and the prison sentence was not a surprise.

He was a juvenile at the time of the crime and had a slew of caseworkers and probation officers and also was sent to Boys Town in Nebraska. His case cost Muskegon County hundreds of thousands of dollars, Johnson says.

A social worker worked with him for two years and it took him 18 months of that time to realize that he had taken the life of someone who didn’t deserve to die, Johnson says.

“The first time he cried about this was with the social worker,” Johnson says. “He was into getting high, shooting people, and having sex. He was an enforcer. He had the potential to do so much more but that’s not where he applied himself and those opportunities.”

Like the majority of the clients that Johnson’s office works with, this young man had underlying issues that included a lack of family support and an absence of anyone he could really talk to.

“We tried this case knowing that if he loses, he would go to jail for the rest of his life,” Johnson says. “His mother came to court one day and never came back.”

Even though the outcome of the trial was clear to everyone involved, the social worker focused her efforts on getting him counseling and offering support to make family connections to help him better manage his incarceration or navigate a world that will have changed if he ever has the opportunity to get an early release.

“We may never see the benefit of it in this community, but someone else may see the benefit when he was incarcerated,” Johnson says. “If we can provide a service that’s effective to assist and help people when they’re coming home, at some point, we’ll provide it.”

Closing arguments

Much of what Johnson cites as successes is based on anecdotal, not statistical information. He says the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission is compiling statistical documentation that will offer a more fact-based assessment of the effectiveness of the social work project.

Makled says a 10-year study done by the Bronx Defenders showed positive results, including less jail time and less recidivism.

“This study showed that while conviction rates stayed the same, there were shorter sentences and more alternatives offered to incarceration,” Makled says.

Johnson says judges he has dealt with have been very receptive to having alternatives to putting someone in jail.

“They’ve gambled on it and so far I think they’re happy with it. Before this came about a judge had two options -- put you in jail or not. By bringing in this wave of social workers, judges have other options to work with. You have judges listening to me, this crusty old defense attorney and calling in social workers to talk with them,” Johnson says.

Tomak says her reaction to this is completely positive.

“As a former defense attorney, I can say that to have that type of asset and assistance will allow public defenders assigned to a case to have access to additional information that contributed to this situation, such as underlying mental health issues that may have caused them to lose their temper,” she says. “It helps the court in the event of a guilty finding and it helps the probation department to help this person and not just to punish them.”

To have this service available to everyone, will level the playing field, she says. “That’s what the Public Defender’s Office is for, to give everyone the same level of legal representation.”

Johnson says prosecuting attorneys are among his office’s greatest supporters.

“If I have a drug addict on heroin, during the course of a year she will steal from 1,000 people to meet her addiction, but if I get her into a substance abuse program, that costs the county and the taxpayers nothing,” Johnson says. “She gets a job, gets her kids back from the state, is paying taxes, and is part of the PTA. That kind of logic defeats iron bar therapy. Putting people like her in jail doesn’t make economic or social sense.”

Makled says the Social Worker Defender Project is part of an evolution in the way the criminal justice system does its work.

“The United States is known for having the highest incarceration rates in the world and for certain kinds of crimes and behaviors, it’s understood why society wants to remove or take the people who commit these crimes out of circulation, but when you’re dealing with mental health and drug problems, there’s been for some time now a cultural shift in attitudes about this,” he says. “We’re not trying to coddle criminals, it’s about investing in people who want to make a change in more productive ways which is better than them sitting in a jail cell.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.