(The authors, 54B District judges Andrea Larkin and Richard Ball of East Lansing, are responding to the news article in last week’s City Pulse on Larkin’s views on mixing college students and accused felons from Lansing in a proposed consolidated justice system in Ingham County.)

The possible consolidation of the district courts of Lansing, East Lansing and the remaining county (Mason) is important for their residents to consider. The article in the City Pulse did not do the subject justice, did not address the core issues and did not treat the communities involved fairly. Instead, it fed a controversy it created, and was in no way a reflection of what was said or how it was said by Judge Larkin.

The article mischaracterized one of many considerations in the consolidation discussion. Judge Larkin did not use the words “Lansing jailbirds,” “riffraff coming out of Lansing,” “wayward student offenders,” “protecting” college students or categorize “people from Lansing,” her hometown. She spoke of the well-studied issue of different criminal risk categories.

The Lansing and East Lansing district courts were divided into 54A and 54B almost 50 years ago because the legislature recognized the two communities were different. East Lansing is intertwined with its largest employer and population center, and is the self-described “home of Michigan State University.”

MSU’s 50,000 student enrollment means East Lansing’s population includes a disproportionately large percentage of residents (62.4%) between ages 18 and 24. Lansing, by contrast, has 12.3% in that age range (2010 Census).

The legislature recognized “research which establishes that the human brain does not fully mature until closer to the mid- 20s” when it enacted the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act. The legislative analysis for the Act recognized the risks involved in housing young people charged with minor crimes along with higher risk defendants: “Housing [17-23 year olds] separately is more expensive yet few would advocate having them in the general population where they may be at higher risk for victimization or may pick up criminal behaviors from older prisoners.” (Analysis, House Fiscal Agency, House Bill 4069.) This issue has nothing at all to do with city of residence, race, culture, courthouse or politics. It is based on criminogenic risk studies, misdemeanors versus felonies and violent or habitual criminals versus low risk offenders (whether or not in college).

Unfortunately, the sensational City Pulse article with its attention grabbing headline ignores the core concerns the city councils should be mindful of in making this important decision on behalf of their residents. The most important consideration is whether residents want to lose their local courts which are reflective of their city’s needs. Each city will lose the opportunity to elect local judges who reside in the city where they serve. (54A Judge Hugh Clarke raised these valid concerns citing Lansing’s demographics as compared with the county as a whole.)

Residents will have to travel to a new court complex rather than having the courts in their city center. Police officers will be off the streets and unable to enforce the law while they are transporting arrestees or driving to the new facility to get warrants authorized.

It will cost both cities significantly for a new court facility (projected at $20 million for Lansing; $10 million for East Lansing over 20 years). The costs of security (now unknown), transportation of arrestees, and many more related costs have not been calculated. The cities will lose most of the fines and all of the costs collected from enforcement of their local ordinances.

The projected cost savings in a preliminary report from the Mason judges do not take into account any of the above costs. The projected savings are not assured and admittedly will not be realized, if at all, for 8-10 years. Savings may become possible then only through the reduction of hard-working administrators and employees who may (only if dockets do not increase) be phased out through attrition.

The cities’ three police departments will not be consolidated because they enforce different ordinances reflective of the priorities of their communities. East Lansing and MSU each support their own separate police departments. The public schools, libraries and fire departments are not consolidated. These examples continue on and on because they are different communities with different governments, zoning codes, neighborhoods, needs and priorities. Indeed, 42 other cities have local courts including Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Pontiac, Kentwood and more.

The notion that a large “one size fits all” justice complex would be more responsive to residents of these cities should be viewed with skepticism. All involved should avoid sensationalizing the issue and trying to divide these communities and instead focus on the very real and important local control and cost issues involved.

(Editor’s note: The judges have taken liberty with some facts, the most important of which is the accusation that the article inaccurately reflected what Judge Larkin said and how she said it. We stand by our reporting.

The judges contend that City Pulse manufactured the controversy. In fact, City Pulse interviewed Larkin because a source informed City Pulse that the judge had made statements to public officials expressing her concern about mixing college students with Lansing residents in a consolidated justice system. Moreover, in the first of two telephone interviews with reporter Kyle Kaminski, Larkin said: “I have three kids in their 20s. One is here at Michigan State University If they got picked up for urinating in public or assaulting someone outside a bar in East Lansing, would I want them to be housed with people from Lansing facing more dangerous felonies. I’m speaking as a parent, but I would not.”

The judges say the article did not address “core issues.” But they do not point out that the article was one of several that City Pulse has published on various aspects of court consolidation, including this week. Today’s article reports that Larkin said she only learned that court consolidation efforts were underway from reading City Pulse. We will continue to explore the issue.

The judges create the impression that City Pulse misquoted Larkin numerous times. In fact, all of their references were paraphrases. By and large, we stand by them as accurately reflecting the reporter’s understanding of Larkin’s position. We regret using the loaded word “riffraff,” which was edited out of a subsequent, online article.)