Chief Detroit Judge: I Don’t allow My Wife to Buy Gas in Detroit
In the bustling downtown courthouse, packed with lawyers and criminals and traffic violators, 36th District Court’s Chief Judge Kenneth J. King sees first hand the ills of the city and the impact of cuts in city services by Detroit’s leaders.
“There’s no way in the world that anybody can justify to me how you would cut fire, police and the courts in one of the most dangerous cities in America,” King says pointedly. “I don’t see how you can do that and justify at the same time, certain people get city cars to drive to work. The city foots the bill for insurance. I drive my own car. All 31 of us judges in the building, we drive our own car.”
A former Wayne County prosecutor, King, 42, oversees the busiest state court in Michigan, which handles everything from preliminary examinations for murders, rapes and car jackings to traffic violations and misdemeanors. The court, located on Madison Avenue near Ford Field and Greektown, services 8,000 people a day.
King has handled his share of high profile cases, the most recent being pre-trial hearings for the Grosse Pointe Park businessman Bob Bashara, who is charged with putting a hit on the hitman accused of killing his wife Jane Bashara.
On a recent afternoon, I sat down with Judge King and discussed a host of subjects from the justice system’s failure to adequately address mental illness to the decline of the school system to the court’s $6 million budget cut that could lead to payless paydays early next year and the state of crime today.
“The frequency of armed robberies has increased,” says King, who lives in the city and is an alum of Southwestern High School. “The frequency of car jackings has increased. The property crimes and home invasions has increased.”
That being said, the father of two boys, says he won’t let his wife go to a Detroit gas station to fill up the car.
“I do it myself. The likelihood of something happening to you at a gas station in the city of Detroit is higher than in other places.”
King was first appointed to the bench by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2006 and ran unopposed two years later when he was elected. In January, the state Supreme Court appointed him chief judge.
He says the court could run out of money by January or February, and if the city doesn’t restore some of his budget, he says he may sue the city. He speaks of the endless frustration of seeing the Wayne County Jail release inmates early because of overcrowding and of police precincts keeping limited hours.
He tells a story of a man wanted for assault with intent to murder and how he tried unsuccessfully to turn himself in, but the police station was closed.
He also has a thing or two to say about Kwame Kilpatrick, someone he describes as an acquaintance.
The following is a condensed version of the interview. Some answers have been reduced and questions have been edited for clarity.
You were a prosecutor in Wayne County. Did you enjoy that?
I did but it was very stressful and rewarding at the same time.
I came to the prosecutors’s office out of criminal defense. So I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about people going to jail for dope or carrying guns. At the time, they had us do a stint through homicide and that changed my whole perspective. Once I got in there I realized, ‘Ok, now I’m doing something that is meaningful, something that matters, that can change the course of people’s lives.’
Since you’ve been on the bench, has the criminal you see today changed in any way from before when you were a prosecutor?
I’m seeing a lot of mentally unstable folks that are coming through and the defendants appear to be getting younger and younger.
When you say mentally unstable, what are some of the signs?
There is a certain level of disrespect. You can tell in their body language , they’re not really able to focus. There’s a street mentality that is out there. There’s just a sense of lawlessness that you can pretty much do anything, you can intimidate witnesses or police officers.
When you talk about mental illness, is the system doing anything with schools or prisons to pinpoint the troubled folks and address the problem?
It’s definitely missing a component. It dates probably back to the Engler administration when he closed the mental institutions. After I left the prosecutors office, I did a stint in the juvenile detention facility. One of the things I didn’t contemplate when I got there is that we would be dealing with a number of kids who were dealing with mental illness. Juvenile detention centers are not hospitals. They’re not equipped to handle those kind of issues.They’re not equipped to handle someone who takes a spoon and shoves it up their rectum, smears feces on the wall and that type of thing. These kids need to be hospitalized because there’s something else going on.
Did you see a lot of that?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve seen kids who walk up to one of the guards and punch them right in the face for no reason and break a jaw. And (the guards) can’t hit them back, all they can do is restrain them. The thing that drove me crazy was that the recidivism rate was probably high because a lot of kids actually lived better in detention than they did at home. In detention they got three square meals, they got heat in the winter, they got air in the summer, they had school, they had medical care if they needed it.
Does it scare you to see some people come through your courtroom and then go back out on the streets?
It scares me in general, not necessarily that they’re back on the street, that these kinds of things are happening out there, period. I don’t allow my wife to buy gas within the Detroit city limits. I do it it myself. Not that I take comfort anywhere else, but the likelihood of something happening to you at a gas station in the city of Detroit is higher than in other places.
Do you usually get gas in Detroit?
It depends, most of the time I get it in Detroit at a gas station I’m fairly comfortable with, usually well lit, usually well populated.
Do you see different crimes out there or basically are they the same?
Pretty much the same. The frequency has increased: The frequency of the armed robberies has increased. The frequency of the car jackings has increased. The property crimes and home invasions have increased.
The Free Press had an editorial recently on sentencing and said that the Pew Foundation found that some of the longer sentences aren’t necessarily doing any more to combat crime. Attorney General Bill Schuette responded in a letter to the editor, saying there should be longer sentences for some of the habitual criminals. What’s your feeling?
I’ll say this. If you’re talking about rehabilitating people while they’re in jail, that’s not going to happen.
Why is that?
Because quite frankly they’re not doing a very good job. You have people going to prison, they go out. They’re not rehabilitated. They’re more disenfranchised than anything. But I am in favor of the longer sentences. I think it does have an impact on the crime. I’m in favor of getting that lawlessness off the street.
Do you think enough has been done to try and do that?
No, I don’t think enough has been done just by virtue of fact that right now we have a high volume of cases that come through this courthouse. primarily our biggest thing is traffic offenses and misdemeanors. We'll get a person with a stack of misdemeanors , 50,60 misdemeanors, and they’ll walk through the front door and I’m thinking, ‘Why in the heck are you coming through this door as opposed to this door behind me?’
What happens, a lot, regardless of what kind of bond we set, regardless of what kind of sentence we give, the Wayne County Jail will release them to appear for another court date. I can put somebody in jail and they’ll get out before I get off work.
Or we’ll have a defendant who has a Detroit warrant who gets picked up in Lincoln Park , or Allen Park or Highland Park or Hamtramck or somewhere. He’ll get picked up and they’ll say ‘You have this Detroit warrant’ and they’ll call Detroit and say ‘we have so and so here who has a warrant out of your jurisdiction, are you coming to get him?’ Detroit will say ‘No, we’re not coming to get him, we don’t have the manpower to get him ‘ So they advise him, ‘You’ve got a warrant, you might want to take care of’ and they let him go. If the Wayne County Jail isn’t holding people for us, people that we put in jail, it becomes a joke to them.
Why is that happening?
They’re rational behind it is ‘we need this bed space for the more violent prisoners.’
What would you like to change about the system?
Right now, I would like to change the mindset of a lot of our leaders. The mindset appears to be balancing the budget or getting to some number is more important than anything else. There’s no way in the world that anybody can justify to me how you would cut fire, police an the courts in one of the most dangerous cities in America.
I don’t see how you can do that and justify at the same time, certain people get city cars to drive to work, the city foots the bill on insurance. I drive my own car to work. All 31 of us judges in this building, we drive our own car and pay our own insurance.
Are you referring to city council members?
I’m referring to anyone who drives a city vehicle.
What’s going to happen to the courts?
If they make us stick to a $6 million budget cut, what’s probably going to happen is that a lawsuit will follow. I’m going to be have to be forced to sue the city. They have a constitutional mandate to fund the court adequately. We service 8,000 people who come through our courts a day. We have no technology. We’re doing the same thing today that we did 30 years ago. Because I don’t have the technology, everything is paper driven and driven by people who have to push the paper.
What do you anticipate happening if some funds aren’t restored?
We would not be able to function as a court. We would not be able to process the work that we have . We’re already lagging behind in certain areas 8 to 12 weeks. Right now I need the people because I don’t have the technology. I have instituted furloughs as a cost saving measure where our employee were taking off one or two days a month or something like that. I had to abandon that because doing so was putting us in a hole.
You’ve been a lifelong resident of Detroit. How do you view the city?
It really does trouble me to see that we’ve lost focus as to what’s important. I understand what happened to the city. The city’s biggest downfall was the loss of residency. When police officers and firefighters and employees were allowed to move outside the city limits. That eroded that tax base, that eroded people who cared about their communities, their homes. Now those people are living in Canton, they’re living in Brownstown. They’re all over the place. They no longer have to stay in the city of Detroit.
Can the city reverse the trend and get some folks to move back?
I don’t understand how you can think that you can attract people to come back to the city unless you get a handle on the crime, unless you can ensure that your residents will feel safe. Closing precincts at a certain time. I had a person who I was talking to. They said that a friend of theirs was being followed by somebody for about 30 minutes and they told him go to the police station. He said, ‘what for, there’s nobody there. ‘ That’s utterly ridiculous.
We just had a case where a young lady was being abused by her boyfriend. She went to one of the stations to get help. They told her, ‘we’re closed, you’re going to have to use the phone outside’ and he ultimately shot her in the head.
A wanted felon tries to turn himself in. He gets turned away. He has to call a police friend he knows just to turn himself in. He’s charged with assault with intent to murder. These things are unbelievable and it’s really depressing to ride through our neighborhoods and to see the number of burned out abandoned homes.
How do you expect to attract people to come to the city that has a school system that’s closing schools left and right and then overpopulating the classroom? You’re driving people out of those schools.
Sometimes it makes me wonder, are they trying to collapse the Detroit Public School system? My wife is a school teacher in Detroit Public Schools, took a 10 percent cut, has to take another 10 percent cut. She had to reapply for a job that she’s had for 11 years. And I’m not biased when I say this but she’s a damn good teacher. She’s a phenomenal science teacher.
When you see all the drama at city hall, city council, corporate counsel, does that scare you that you’re relying on these people?
It is scary because I am relying on the city council that holds the purse so to speak and my court is in a very unique position. We’re like no other court in the state that compares to the volume we have. It’s very difficult to get people to understand and appreciate that. They have no idea what we’re doing with what we have. I think it’s nothing less than remarkable what we’re able to pull off on a daily basis. And here’s the other thing. This court has gotten a bad reputation. I’ve heard us referred to as a ‘ghetto court’, I’ve heard us referred to as lazy judges who don’t respect other people’s time. But at the same time, at a period of time when the Supreme court was looking to cut judges throughout the state, reduce , combine judges and so forth, when they did an audit of 36th District and they looked at what we did and what we do it with and they said we’re down five judges. We need five more judges. That in itself should tell you who we have here are working very hard, they’re working their butts off.
What’s the future of this court and the city of Detroit?
I’m hoping that better times are coming. I can’t put everything on city council. I can’t put everything on the mayor’s office. There’s some things that we have to change. I think we have to do a better job of collecting the outstanding fines and costs. There’s millions of dollars out there that for years and years and years, for whatever reason, we have not been able to collect.
What else needs to be done for things in general to improve?
Something has to happen with our family structure and education and jobs.
The problem stems from what’s going on at home. Most of time they’re telling me that 'my mom doesn’t pay any attention to me and my dad doesn’t love me. I don’t hear from him anymore. He has another family.' And these kids are hurting and they have this pent up anger and they’re too immature. They don’t even know what’s wrong with them. They just know they’re not happy.
You have any opinions on the Detroit government?
Love him or hate him, at the time Kwame Kilpatrick was here I did see a lot of growth and development that was going on in the city of Detroit. Now, whether you want to attribute that to Dennis Archer who proceeded him, or Kwame Kilpatrick, under his reign, there was some growth and development. Then all this other stuff came along. It really saddens me. I think he had a lot of potential.
You saw some good in what he was doing?
I don’t think anybody can deny that. But with that good came a lot of bad that was going on.
Are you optimistic about the future of Detroit?
I have to be. Because we’re so far down the only place we can go is up.