Every week, community members gather downtown at the Book, Art, and Spiritual Center of Hillsdale in an effort to improve perceived injustices in Hillsdale’s justice system.
Richard Wunsch, owner of BASCH previously known solely as Volume One Bookstore, and fellow Hillsdale resident Jon-Paul Rutan conceived of the Hillsdale Justice Project in 2012. Since then, it’s taken a more concrete shape with the help of community members.
“It evolved from being a ‘What’s wrong with our community?’ group initially to a ‘Well, what can we do about it?’” Deb Connors said, who has been involved with the Project from its beginning.
The Project’s main focus continues to be on the criminal justice system, Wunsch said, but it also deals with many satellite agencies and issues such as Child Protective Services, the Department of Human Services, mental health, and the school system.
“I do not want to willy-nilly try and destroy structures or replace people,” Wunsch said. “I want people to act right.”
Hillsdale County Sheriff Stan Burchardt said that he is not aware of the problems that the Project has identified.
“I’ve been a law enforcement officer in this county for 40 years, a trooper for 25 years, and this is my 19th year as sheriff,” Burchardt said. “In that time, I don’t know of any problems we’ve had with the justice system.”
Burchardt added that while he knows the group exists in Hillsdale, he hasn’t had direct contact with it, so is unable to comment on it. He said the court-appointed attorneys do their jobs well, exemplified by the small number of appeals in his time.
“If there [are issues], I’m sure it will come to the public’s attention,” Burchardt said.
The Project focuses its energies on three areas: community education, mediation, and a visible presence. It seeks to educate people on relevant issues such as their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, how to interact with police officers, and complicated court and agency issues.
Mediation is essential to the Project. If members hear about someone having a problem in a school or with an authority, they will often try to step in and help before it becomes a complicated legal issue.
“A lot of times, if you can make both sides see a happy center, you don’t have an expensive problem,” said Charlie Sharp, a former Hillsdale police officer and Project consultant.
Sharp retired from the police force in 1990 after 24 years of service. There, by learning how to avoid fights while making arrests, he experienced firsthand the ways in which potentially violent situations can be diffused.
The Project believes its presence in the community can be significant. To accomplish this, members try to attend community meetings and court cases to know firsthand what’s going on and hold authorities accountable.
“In a community the size of this and with things like these newspaper releases, oftentimes they’re going to make the judicial system work a little harder to think about what they’re doing if they know there’s somebody watching,” Sharp said.
Wunsch and Connors said although this kind of change is not quantifiable, it is perceptible.
Hillsdale Circuit Court Judge Michael Smith heard about the Justice Project from the Hillsdale Daily News, but he said he has never interacted with it. He added that he would be willing to discuss any problems that the Project may identify, but he has never heard from its members.
The Project is growing as more people seek its help. It is now involved with an issue about twice a week — even twice a day, Connors said, but as the group grows, it begins to feel its limits.
“This is not an easy process we’re doing — trying to get it off the ground and making it run smoothly — because you’ve got so many volunteer, part-time people that are dedicated but limited,” Sharp said. “Almost every brainstorming session, new thoughts and ideas are developed and thrown in.”
Despite its limitations, the Project continues to work toward its goals. According to Connors, some changes seem to make that process easier, such as more positive communication between the Project and authorities.
“I think we’ve begun to establish communication channels with some of the people that are in positions to actually do something about it,” Connors said. “I think everyone eventually sees it in their best interest to have the best kind of community we can.”
The more this kind of “community cooperation” can be fostered, the more the members of the Project believe can be accomplished to benefit Hillsdale.
“Not a lot of change, not big changes, but changes. That’s all you can hope for. You can hope to help steer things to where they’re a little smoother,” Sharp said. “It would be false hope to think that we’re going to step in and change the world overnight … but if we can make things better for one person, it’s worth our time.”