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Kalamazoo Defender surpases one year of service


Public defender’s offices provide free legal help for criminal defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. But Kalamazoo County’s office also provides assistance with substance abuse, mental health, employment and other challenges.

Kalamazoo Defender marked one year of operation in July. From the start, it declared that it would take a wholistic approach. It’s hired two social workers to connect defendants with community agencies. Now, outside agencies will have space within its walls to create “one-stop shopping” for social services to help its clients live healthier lives and reduce recidivism. Joshua Hilgart is executive director of the Kalamazoo Defender. 

“I am unaware of this particular arrangement being used in any other defender office,” said Hilgart.

The shared space opening soon is called “The Village.” About a dozen organizations will be housed on part of the second floor of the downtown Kalamazoo building where Kalamazoo Defender is headquartered. Kalamazoo Defender occupies the third floor and some of the second floor. Michigan Works plans to have a career coach onsite.  Kalamazoo Community Mental Health, now called Integrated Services of Kalamazoo, expects to have peer navigators at the Village to link defendants and their family members with mental health services. Bronson Healthcare also plans to have a presence. Clinical nurse leader Michele Smith tracks who visits Bronson’s emergency rooms.

“The patients I’m seeing with chronic health needs also have chronic social needs and they’ve been living those for years," says Smith. "And they didn’t have the right mentoring and support. They didn’t have the social resources, and they just get deeper and deeper in a well.”

The plan is to secure more funding so the entire second floor can be filled with community agencies and groups. Joshua Hilgart says he hopes to open the Village to the general public as well, after the project’s first year.