by Kaye Bennett
Anne Blatchford ’82 credits Kalamazoo College with instilling in her a sense of social justice and equality for all. As a judge in Michigan’s 8th District Court, Blatchford has a unique ability to put those lessons to use every day at work. And a new young adult justice program that she’s spearheading will let her extend those principles even further.
After graduating from K, Blatchford, a southwest Michigan native, attended law school at Valparaiso University, earning her Juris Doctor degree in 1986. Then she and husband John Spitzer ’83 moved to Rockford, Illinois, where Spitzer attended medical school and Blatchford practiced law, serving as in-house counsel first for the City of Rockford, then for the City of Naperville.
Blatchford said that her husband had always dreamed of living in Kalamazoo again, and they agreed that it would be a nice place to raise a family. Since moving back to Kalamazoo in 1990, she says, “I’ve witnessed the can-do, will-do attitude of this community.”
When they first got back to Michigan, Blatchford worked for the City of Kalamazoo as deputy city attorney. Then she took some time off to start a family, returning to work in 1997 to serve part-time as a magistrate in the courts. When her second baby was born, she decided to stay home until her youngest child was ready to start kindergarten. By that time, the court system had consolidated, and Blatchford got a call, asking if she would be willing to serve as magistrate again.
Then, when Judge Ann Hannon announced her retirement, Blatchford decided to run for the judgeship: “It seemed like a natural progression,” she says. Politics did not come naturally to her. “I tend to be an introvert, but I like to meet people, and I never got a door slammed in my face.” She was elected to her position in 2005.
As part of her new job, Blatchford was in charge of a drug treatment program for female felons. She found that seeing women make huge changes in their lives, working to become clean, sober, productive members of society, was “one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
But Blatchford knew that there is another population who could benefit from her court’s individualized attention: youths with misdemeanors who had not yet committed felonies. Blatchford says her dream was to intervene with this group and hopefully divert them from felonies, crimes which would go on their permanent record, scarring them for the rest of their lives.
“In my perfect world,” says Blatchford, “if a young person is in court, you could look at the whole person and decide where they need help.”
The people she was thinking of, Blatchford says, were the young adults, ages 17 to 20, half of them already on probation, all of them living in chaos. Their own parents may have been in and out of the court system or jail; they may have dropped out of school; they may already have a child of their own. They may be using marijuana or alcohol, behavior Blatchford considers a symptom of deeper issues.
Blatchford spent a long time thinking about how the court and, even more, the community could help these young people turn their lives around. Then she reached out to Joan Hawxhurst, director of K’s Center for Career and Professional Development. Blatchford asked Hawxhurst for names of people in the community who might be able to help her bring her dream to life.
The two came up with a list of almost 30 names, and Blatchford invited them all to a meeting to discuss the idea. She was inspired by the response: “People wanted to help make the change,” she says.
She narrowed the list down to a working group who would design the program, along with promises from many others to help out. The Young Adult Diversion Program is a collaboration of community resources. The partners include:
The Court system: Youth in the program check in weekly with a probation officer, who will serve as case manager. They also see Blatchford every other week.
The Great Lakes Peace Jam, which helps the
"You never know what shoes you'll walk in."young people develop a role in the community.
Speak It Forward: This spoken poetry duo comprised of local artists Kirk Latimer and Gabriel Giron helps the youth come to terms with their issues.
The Douglass Community Center, where the program is housed. Personnel from here and from Community Mental Health provide counseling.
Blatchford has also been working with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and its vice president of community investment, another Kalamazoo College alum, Suprotik Stotz-Ghosh ’95, to seek grant funding for the program. She makes a strong argument for the economic benefit of her vision: Young offenders drop out of school, can’t get a job, turn to criminal activity, and become a drain on community resources, rather than productive contributors. “It just makes sense,” Blatchford says, “to redirect this population.”
The Young Adult Diversion program launched last fall with a pilot group of about 25 young offenders. Eventually, Blatchford feels that as many as 60 youth may be enrolled in the plan.
Reflecting on the influence that Kalamazoo College has had on her life, Blatchford recalls her study abroad program, in Aix-en-Provence. Her program encouraged students to tutor grade schoolers, most of them from poor immigrant families, in English. Blatchford says it was humbling when the children laughed at her French. A few decades later, she sought to remedy her accent, taking French at K’s Stryker Center, preparing for a trip to France with her husband to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. K instilled in her a lifelong love of learning, she says.
Blatchford believes that studying liberal arts helps a person accept people where they are. “You never know what shoes you’ll walk in.” This attitude, coupled with Blatchford’s passion for helping people turn their lives around, guides Judge Anne Blatchford’s court today.
Photo - Judge Ann Blatchford