top of page

My Friend Josh Hilgart Is Running For Judge In Michigan-- Here's Why Everyone In America Should Care

The Kind Of Restorative Justice Reform Even Conservatives Can Get Behind

I first met Josh Hilgart in Washington while I served as a board member at Normal Lear’s progressive People For the American Way. Josh was a strategic planner at the non-profit and ran the digital outreach program at the time, which was then at the forefront of the burgeoning field of online organizing.

We bonded over our love of the post-punk / new wave era but also on basic moral and political precepts central to a healthy society. We’ve kept in touch since.

Most recently, Josh has set up an amazing Public Defender model in his hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan that should be a national standard (he describes it below) and now seeks to take the values embedded in that project to the Circuit Court Bench in Kalamazoo.

Please read on and you will see why I think your support for Josh in this race is money well spent, even if you live 1,000 miles from Kalamazoo. While Josh cannot ask for money as a judicial candidate, I can, and I do now. You can give anywhere from a few bucks to $7,150. Use this site to help power good light in this complicated world, and let me introduce Josh:

Kalamazoo Defender

-by Josh Hilgart

Thank you to Howie for giving me a platform to talk about my work and the race for Circuit Judge. And thanks to all of you choosing to read for taking to time to find out why I think this matters.

This is a traumatizing world. Words and deeds don’t often square up and money always seems to erode the small advances of decency. Howie and I were fighting together for voting rights 25 years ago and here we are today, losing ground. Rights to bodily autonomy just fell off the map, the political power of the average human has deteriorated, and our criminal legal systems largely push on as they always have, in contrast to volumes of social science and the alternative programs around the world that demonstrate shame, judgment, and incarceration are poor tools for addressing human strife.

After working with Howie in DC on the macro national issues, I returned to Kalamazoo to work directly with southwest Michigan’s poor as a Legal Aid attorney. After a few years getting to know this community, which was regularly subjected to the grinding bottom of our systems, an opportunity arose that would permit me to vastly reduce the trauma experienced by those subjected to my county’s criminal systems.

The State of Michigan had been sued for failing to provide sufficient 6th Amendment legal representation to those facing criminal charges. The state was going to lose this lawsuit. So it settled the case by creating an agency that would distribute funds to counties to improve indigent defense, once those counties could present a program that would meet basic standards regarding timely attorney-client meetings, continuing legal education requirements, and such.

My County, Kalamazoo, voted to offer up the opportunity to deliver its indigent defense to a qualified non-profit, which would meet the state standards. This was unlike most other counties in the state.

I had already been thinking about how the bottom 50% in Kalamazoo could use their own “law firm” to represent their interests. While there were many support mechanisms in Kalamazoo, there was precious little concerted legal advocacy for the underserved as a class. And it struck me: what constituency represents the politically unrepresented better than criminal defendants, many of whom end up in the criminal systems due to poverty, untreated mental illness, life-long trauma, racism, and isolation?

I gathered together local experts in criminal defense, mental health, and community engagement to create Kalamazoo Defender.

In months, we created a legal defense non-profit that exceeded expectations in quality and organization. Now, three years in, we have an organization that may be the best in the state at zealously representing our clients that also includes a massive service hub of local and state service providers built into our offices. We occupy two large floors of an office building across the street from the Court; one holding a top rate criminal defense law firm and the other facilitating coordinated client care by over two dozen local partners, with focuses on physical health, mental health, pro-bono civil services, addiction, housing, community support, and volunteers with lived experiences in the criminal justice system to help our clients understand the opportunities we provide from a source they are more willing to trust.

The blending of the non-legal and legal services pays off in astounding ways.

First, the client experiences Kalamazoo Defender as more than just the attorney that works their case; we are a team helping them with whatever they might need, even if totally unrelated to their case. Our office becomes a community tool and a safe place for the client, which is something impossible with a system where there is only attorney-client interaction at court events and disembodied phone calls.

Second, the care into which our clients enter is integrated into their legal case so the attorney can present to the court that individual client’s progress and initiative during the case. This humanizes the client and creates a trajectory for success that a compassionate judge does not want to interrupt. That makes it easier to argue against incarceration and instead for things like suspended sentences, and a wait-and-see approach that could lead to dismissal where the client succeeds.

Third, the co-located hub promotes interdisciplinary education among service providers who are focused on the underserved community. Criminal defense attorneys learn about the extended complexities of their clients’ mental health issues. Addiction experts learn about housing insecurity/policy at a deeper level. And everyone learns a whole lot more about the criminal justice system in Kalamazoo, a once opaque process known only to contract attorneys, judges, prosecutors and court staff working in isolation.

Fourth, as a result of the above, this collaborative office is changing the entire community’s body of knowledge about the population we serve and the systems that process them, whether compassionate or trauma inducing. The conversation is organically growing in healthy ways and the opportunities for greater participation in alternative approaches based on love and mutual support are growing with it.

Which leads me to why I’m running for judge.

Kalamazoo Defender is now up and running with great resources and an amazing, dedicated staff— fueled by abounding community support and participation. Infusing our court system with the same values and energy could double the impact.

Kalamazoo is well poised to make the most of these experiments. Retired Judge William Schma, one of my founding partners in Kalamazoo Defender and a mentor who had encouraged me to seek a seat on the bench, is a national figure in creating the specialty court movement across the United States. Thirty years ago, he founded the nation’s second drug court here in Kalamazoo, and the nation’s first drug court for women. Since, Kalamazoo has adopted other specialty courts and has a judiciary and community generally disposed to seeking alternatives.

In a community with those values, there is a reasonable chance that a court willing to take that experiment one step further could change the face of its criminal system in ways that could be reproduced around the nation. Here in Kalamazoo we could attain a model that flips the script on how we think about criminal adjudication.

What do I mean by “flip the script?” Taking the model of the Kalamazoo Defender and bringing it to the bench: transforming interaction with the “criminal justice system” from one of judgment to opportunity.

Many systems around the nation— though not nearly enough— are experimenting with additional services, recognizing trauma, incorporating specialty courts, and such. But even where this is happening, the underlying frames don’t change. The models look more like felt being glued to pre-existing rusty sharp edges rather than a wholesale shift to alternative tools, based on compassion and ubiquitous research.

Here in Kalamazoo we can build upon the County’s legacy and the momentum of groundbreaking community support assembled at Kalamazoo Defender to transition ours to a system that first and foremost looks at those otherwise subject to arrest and prosecution as community members signaling for help.

If that was the approach— how to help people who have raised their hands through their actions— the response would look incredibly different. Instead of a system that compounds existing trauma, further alienating and isolating individuals already at the margins, it would welcome in and provide solidarity to those people the first time they encounter “the system,” radically reducing the probability that they ever come back into it.

While this approach may not be the right one for everyone running afoul of criminal statutes, it is for the majority. Kalamazoo Defender has over 5,000 cases each year and the heinous crimes make up a very small proportion of them. Most of our cases involve fights, shoplifting, addiction to contraband, or expressions of mental health struggles.

What is more, where there is a victim in a crime, that victim often doesn’t want to see the defendant incarcerated so much as they want an apology, to be paid back, and/or to know that the person isn’t going to do the same thing again, to that victim or anyone else.

Through a combination of organized community support and restorative justice practices, we can set aside incarceration or other punitive measures, which often fail to prevent recidivism. We can replace our current system with one that focuses on the general health of our community rather than surgically cutting out the “bad” parts when an individual loses the ability to steer their own life effectively.

Such an approach is very close in Kalamazoo and could happen with judicial engagement. What’s more, the judiciary here— along with the community— is probably better suited than most in the nation to give it a go, if there was internal organization within the 9th Circuit Court to go that extra step.

I think I could help in that regard.



bottom of page