Dressed in metal-tipped boots and a blue shirt, Jon Rutan bustles around the space, setting up a projector. A pistol sits on his right hip. Five rows of four chairs fill up most of the blue and white room, which is empty save for a few people.
Rutan is the education director for the Hillsdale Justice Project, an organization dedicated to educating local residents about the justice system and U.S. Constitution. HJP recently held a fundraiser that raised more than $400 to put the finishing touches on their new headquarters, which they moved into in March.
HJP was started in 2012 and currently has around 10 core members, according to Rutan.
The kitchenette coffee maker hums as Rutan leads everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance and then a moment of silence. He puts in a disc of a 40-minute lecture from the 2013 Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association convention, interjecting in a few places, but saving most of his discussion prompts for the end of the lecture.
As he walks his students through answering these questions, he reminds them the origin of certain amendments or quotes, often citing the Federalist Papers.
“Rutan has a good way of reciting these and bringing out what the people who wrote them were thinking at the time,” said James Cramer, a student of HJP for around 3 months. “They’ve helped me solidify my feelings for what the nation was meant to be and what it is no longer”
This is a typical class at HJP. Although the project does coach people through what may be unfair rulings in the criminal justice system, its members also meet to teach people about the meaning of the Constitution — and what it means for them.
“That’s what we do,” said Dennis Wainscott, one of several directors of the project. “Try to help people get to the place where they can help themselves.”
Wainscott compared the project to his previous experience as a minister. Just like a minister preaches to help his congregation understand, the project teaches people so they can understand the justice system.
HJP helps 10 to 15 people a year walk through the justice system, although those numbers can sometimes reach between 40 and 50, according to Rutan.
Although the project does help people who are wrongfully charged, Rutan stresses that the project’s mission is about justice as a whole. A lot of people think justice means walking free, Rutan said, but he considers it to be more than that.
“If you’re guilty of something small, you shouldn’t serve 20 years,” Rutan said.