What started as a community forum listening session, has since launched into an independent organization focused on expanding the transparency of the criminal justice system within Kalamazoo County.
The Campaign for Criminal Justice Transparency (CCJT) is not only providing more transparency to community members, but also informing and creating more integrated conversations between the community and those elected to positions of power.
In 2020, the Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust (ALPACT) held a community forum with Jeff Getting, Kalamazoo County’s prosecuting attorney, and Josh Hilgart, executive director of Kalamazoo Defender and member of ALPACT and Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) Kalamazoo.
“The goal of the forum was to engage the public and help them identify what policy, procedure or action, they would like to press for as an advocacy goal to improve prosecutorial transparency and or accountability,” said Hilgart. “The public came up with the solution of wanting to know what the prosecutor’s office was already doing.”
During the forum, community members expressed that they wanted access to information about who was being prosecuted, arrest rates, racial and gender breakdowns, neighborhood demographics, and sentencing. Once these requests were identified, a plan for a publicly accessible database was established and supported by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights sponsored the forum through ALPACT but did not and cannot support the legislation on the county level. It became a clear conflict of interest for the State’s Civil Rights Division and ALPACT to be the action takers.
In response to this conflict, the CCJT was created. In the fall of 2021, the Kalamazoo City Commission voted yes to implementing the database despite pushback from a few commissioners, the county prosecutor and individual community members worried about confidentiality.
For those who were concerned about confidentiality, Ashante Collins, executive director of the CCJT and lead of the Anti-Racism Task Force at Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy & Action in the Community (ISAAC), offers a reminder about the function and purpose of the database.
“The database will ensure the protection of privacy, confidentiality and security of all individual’s names and identified information,” said Collins.
The database will include the date of arrest, the alleged offense committed, racial and gender identity, the length of sentence, the final deposition and an account of what happened during and after the alleged offense was committed. Most importantly, community members do not have to register with any personal information to gain access to the database.
The first plan of action once the commission voted to approve the database was creating an advisory council board for it.
“A certain percentage of that board has to be from the BIPOC community," said Collins.
We wanted to make sure that the people affected the most had the biggest voice in the room. One person from each district must sit on the board.
- Ashante Collins, executive director of the CCJT and lead of the Anti-Racism Task Force at ISAAC.
After the resolution for the database, more ideas lead to the conversation about starting a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in Kalamazoo. A CIU is a division that operates within the prosecutor’s office and investigates claims of innocence. The purpose of the unit is to decide if new evidence shows that a person has been wrongfully convicted. If this has been determined, the unit would also recommend steps to rectify such situations.
In 2022, the CCJT hosted an online community forum with Kenneth Nixon, president of the Organization of Exonerees, and Eli Savit, the Washtenaw County prosecutor. The purpose of the online forum was to explain the prosecutorial process of a CIU and what it would take to establish one in Kalamazoo.
The CIU would have to be housed in the prosecutor’s office, leaving the discretion up to the prosecutor. As of right now Getting says his team does not have the capacity to house a CIU unit, nor do they have the funds.
To Collins, the issue of capacity and funding can be solved.
“If we find people and we find the money it shouldn’t be an issue,” said Collins. “A team like CCJT can find the resources and help along the way, so why not? It is not a one-man effort, it is a community effort.”
This past June, CCJT hosted their first in-person community forum with Nixon as a speaker. Nixon shared his personal story of being wrongfully convicted and how a CIU brought him home. He emphasized the importance of CIUs in our legal system as well as bridging the communication gap between those on the street and those in executive offices.
The CCJT will continuously push for a CIU in Kalamazoo. In the meantime, the CCJT is focused on implementing the database and working on transformational and restorative youth justice. The campaign is also introducing a strategy to get criminal justice figures engaging more in the community by hosting a judicial forum this month.
The forum will invite all Kalamazoo County judges to a location community members feel comfortable with and give them the opportunity to answer the community’s questions. The questions will be collected by the CCJT through a moderator.
No one has ever gotten the judges out to talk like this, it would be remarkable.
- Josh Hilgart, executive director of Kalamazoo Defender and member of ALPACT and TRHT Kalamazoo.
This will be the first time judges and community members can come together and have transparent and impactful dialogue with one another.
“What we don’t want to do is make them [judges] feel like we are attacking them because we are not,” said Collins. “We just want to make sure the questions that people cannot necessarily ask in the courtroom due to time and place, are still answered elsewhere by those who have the power to change their lives.”
The CCJT hopes to host more judicial forums like the one this month.
“The goal is to have a semiannual event, and on off quarters, we would rotate,” said Hilgart. “It could be public defenders, prosecutor offices, the jail and the Michigan Department of Corrections, so we get kind of an ongoing public forum that would cycle through all other obvious candidates.”
By holding these forums, CCJT hopes to aid in the building of trust between the community and those with power in the criminal justice system. This overarching goal furthers their mission of transparency.
The CCJT is expanding the conversation so more people in the community are educated and involved in conversations regarding the legal system within Kalamazoo.