Kentwood 62-B District Court adds new magistrate, starts sobriety court

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Judge William Kelly has been at the 62-B District Court in Kentwood over 35 years — since 1978 — but it is clear he continuously strives to find ways to keep the court new and fresh.

Over the years, the Kentwood court has been a leader in the latest technology. Judge Kelly started and developed the Landlord-Tenant program, which has been highly successful in addressing some of the court’s large caseload in such conflicts.

And as of March 1, the court achieved a long-term goal by starting a Sobriety Court to help people with certain drunk driving convictions get their lives back on track and avoid further infractions threatening to public safety.

The new case manager/coordinator Andrea Zufelt says, “I’ve been interested in doing this for years, so when I heard that Judge Kelly was seeking funding, I approached him to see if I could help him write the grant.”

Zufelt, a former assistant in the court’s probation office, has an associates degree in juvenile justice and a bachelors degree in criminal justice from Ferris State University. She took an 18-hour Masters Certificate course in alcohol and substance abuse at Western Michigan University. That study qualified her to take (and pass) a state exam for Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor certification, as a result of which she can do assessments of people with substance abuse problems. “I’ve done a few of those for people here at the court with drunk driving convictions who were indigent or couldn’t afford to go to a private agency.”

Those assessments are key to setting up treatment plans, and therefore to qualifying people to participate in the sobriety court.

An essential requirement for participation is that the person is convicted of a second offense for drunk driving. The court can consider enrolling them even if technically the offense has been reduced to a first offense; for example, even if the person has multiple Minors in Possession convictions, the court may charge it as a first offense but the person may still be eligble for the program.

Perhaps most important, potential candidates for the 18-month sobriety court program must sign a participatory agreement. “If they don’t sign that, we won’t take them,” Zufelt says. “It’s the first thing we go over. The agreement lets them know the fines and costs that need to be paid, and it requires them not to take any illegal substances at all. It lays out a lot of stuff and goes into a lot of detail, and talks about complying with their treatment plans and coming to the monthly courts.”

Zufelt concedes that the main “carrot” in the process is that participants will be able to get a restricted drivers’ license if they complete it, but as time progresses, the participants realize so many other benefits. “For example, they may note that things are a lot less stressful at home,” Zufelt says.

The program has some funding built in for those who have challenges paying for treatment providers. “We do have money in our grant if they’re indigent, though we have to use it sparingly. But we’re willing to work with people if they talk to us about it,” Zufelt says.

One of the motivations for starting such a court is that the 61st District Court’s Sobriety Court is at capacity and can no longer take individuals from other courts. The 62-B Sobriety Court is regional, which the 61st is not, so the Kentwood program will take people even from out-of-county referring jurisdictions. Some have already made requests.

Most people enrolled in the program will meet monthly at a court where Judge Kelly presides. There will also be weekly meetings with the participants, and mechanisms for continually tracking their progress. Zufelt will conduct most of the meetings, but Judge Kelly, whose commitment to the program is as strong as Zufelt’s, will put significant time into making the Sobriety Court succeed.

As he says about another set of changes taking place in his court, “One of the reasons we needed to hire an attorney magistrate is so I can devote time to the sobriety court.”
The chain of events leading to the eventual appointment of Sharon Brinks started when Deborah Clanton, who had served as a lay magistrate, retired.

She had been Kentwood’s lay magistrate, as well as director of probation services, since 1992, and was the first African-American magistrate appointed in the Greater Grand Rapids area.

“Deborah was fabulous,” Brinks explains. “When she retired, Judge Kelly analyzed the court’s needs under the State Court Administrator’s Office protocols. He determined that for this court the need is for 1.25 judges. So I officially started March 2 to help fill the gap.”

Brinks will continue her own law practice with the remainder of her time.

A long-time city commissioner, Brinks  ran for mayor in 2014 and lost by a small margin — “94 votes,” she says with an ironic grin. In order to take the part-time magistrate position, she had to resign as commissioner. Judge Kelly comments, “One drawback to hiring Sharon Brinks is that  I lost a good friend on the city commission.”

The court still intends to hire a lay magistrate. In fact, that person has already been appointed, but is in the process of changing residence to comply with the requirement that the magistrate live in Kentwood. A formal announcement will come when that is complete.

Brinks will handle informal hearings, traffic and parking tickets, and small claims court. There are certain types of cases only an attorney magistrate can hear. “I’m handling some of the arraignments. some of the pleas, and the night and weekend duty when Judge Kelly is out of town,” Brinks explains. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that a court has to be available 24/7. So they can wake me up in the middle of the night for a search warrant or an emergency non-contact order. We are able to make the orders electronically so I can do them on my smart phone and with e-fax.”

She underwent a three-day training in Lansing, and has been learning the ropes at 62-B ever since. “This is a great staff here, and my office here is very high-tech, like the one in my law office. I’ve already been familiar with a lot of the programs here. For example, we bring mediators in for small claims cases. I used to be a back-up mediator, but now I’m the small claims court judge working with that same group. It really is an innovative program, one of several here, like the Landlord-Tenant program.”

Brinks laughs as she says, “I’m actually going to be doing weddings,” but turns serious as she continues, “I’m really enjoying it here. District court is going to be the only encounter many people have with a court, and their feelings about the judiciary are colored by the way they’re treated here. So I can do my part in treating them with respect.

“For me, it’s a new opportunity to serve the citizens in a different way,” she adds.