Attorney comes full circle to bring expertise to community corrections



By Cynthia Price

Legal News

Though she says she would never have expected it ten years ago, coming home to Ottawa County has made Foster Swift attorney Nichole Derks feel as if she is right where she is meant to be.

And part of that is sharing her legal expertise in the fields of criminal defense and family law  — along with her great enthusiasm — with the county’s Community Corrections Advisory Board, to which she has just been appointed.

“Community corrections is something I’ve always had a feel for,” Derks says. “In the kind of work I do with criminal defense, I see how effective programs like this can be. I see defendants who may have committed a lot of petty crimes, but, for example, it’s really a result of substance abuse problems. And if we can address that instead,  instead of spending time in jail they go on to be more productive, it becomes just a blip in their history.

“I can’t say enough about what community corrections does. It helps improve lives.”

Derks was born and raised in Jenison, and after attending Ohio State University for her undergraduate degree in criminology and political science, and Michigan State College of Law for her juris doctorate, she followed a career path with Foster Swift that eventually led to being part of the firm’s Holland office.

She has spent the bulk of her practice as a Foster Swift attorney. Before starting in the Lansing office in 2009, Derks worked with the well-known criminal defense and family law attorney Frank Reynolds. “It was great to start out with one of the state’s best trial lawyers,” she says.

After Reynolds ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the bench, he and Derks joined Foster Swift Collins and Smith.

With offices in Grand Rapids,  Lansing, Farmington Hills, Detroit, Marquette and Holland, Foster Swift has over 100 attorneys and has been around for over a century.

The opening of its Holland office allowed Derks to come home to Ottawa County, serving in a four-person office with Jack Siebers, Jennifer Van Regenmorter and Ryan Lamb. Despite her Ottawa County upbringing, she is new to Holland, having moved there only in August of 2012. She hopes her position on the Community Corrections Advisory Board will help familiarize her with the Holland legal and corrections communities.

Derks knows enough, though, to know that Holland is booming. “There is real opportunity here — job and economic growth are doing nothing but well in Ottawa County. It does sometimes seem like there’s a need for more female litigators, though,” she adds with a touch of amusement in her voice.

Her practice takes her into all aspects of family law, including custody, divorce, parent-child law, and adoptions, but in addition to criminal law, she assists with licensing and immigration matters, and does municipal prosecution.

“What I’m most excited about in  what I do is I get to help people solve problems. That’s probably not the first thing you think when you hear ‘criminal defense’ or ‘family law,’ and the truth is that if you’re meeting with me you’re probably not having a good day. But I get to help bring people through to the other side, I get to help fix that,” she says.

And that attitude goes hand-in-hand with her excitement about serving on the Ottawa County Community Corrections Advisory Board.

As Derks explains it, “It’s designed to help ease jail and prison overcrowding by incorporating community services into how we deal with local non-violent offenders.  This is before people have been in prison — how do we keep them out? On the board, what we help do is formulate and continue programs that offer alternatives to jail.”

The statute that authorizes Community Corrections is PA 511, which became law in 1988. The act allows for a county to institute an advisory board, or for more than one county to agree to a “regional” board.

There are 52 community corrections advisory boards around the state, covering 73 of the 83 counties.

While PA 511 originally set up an office of community alternatives within the corrections department as “an autonomous entity, independent of the director of the department,” Governor John Engler eliminated that with Executive Reorganization Order No. 1995-14, bringing it under the corrections director “in the interests of efficient administration and effectiveness of government...”

That same section called for composition of the advisory board to include, among others, a county sheriff, a judge of the circuit court, a judge of the district court, a county commissioner,  a county prosecutor, and a criminal defense attorney. Ottawa County Prosecutor Ronald Frantz chairs the advisory board, and Jodi Salacina runs the community corrections department.

The department develops programs offering alternatives which judges may choose to impose rather than incarceration. For example, community service programs are run through community corrections, which is ultimately under the jurisdiction of the county board of commissioners. Other types of services may include referrals to substance abuse therapy if indicated, or job counseling if an offender is unemployed.

Derks says the main function of the advisory board is to oversee the programs including assessment, and to make suggestions of additional programs or improvements.

“Community corrections helps figure out why people commit the crimes they do and administers the programs we see as alternatives to jail time,” Derks explains. “We’re trying to help save the community money and provide it more viable and productive citizens.”

In addition to being co-chair of the State Bar of Michigan’s Standing Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence and Practice, Derks is a member of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan and Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan. She has published a number of articles and speaks all around the state on a variety of topics.

Derks and her husband, who is also originally from Jenison, have a two-year-old child.