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.”