D'Agostini, a Bloomfield Township resident, has served as a judge for the 48th District Court since 2000, where she is Chief Judge. Prior, she was an assistant Oakland County Prosecutor. She received her law degree from Michigan State University College of Law, and has degrees from Wayne State University and Oxford University.
Michigan Public Act 123 and 124 took effect in 2015, designed to streamline the process of preliminary hearings and to allow district courts to accept felony pleas. Have these efforts at streamlining impacted the 48th District Court? In what ways?
I am in support of this legislation and collaborating more with the circuit court to streamline cases. Accepting felony pleas in district court minimizes court appearances and stress for the families of crime victims, defendants and attorneys. It also allows defendants to move through the court system more efficiently. This translates into quicker placement into treatment programs and collection of restitution for the crime victim. Of significance, the legislation allows for a prompt transfer of defendants to the Department of Corrections, resulting in the savings of space and tax dollars at the Oakland County Jail. While the plan is efficient, a defendant still has the right to a jury trial in circuit court and the district court plea must only be used when the defendant freely and voluntarily waives their constitutional rights.
ELIMINATING JUDGE IN 48th
A 2011 report on the Michigan judiciary recommended, based on caseload and a population decrease of .8 percent from 2000-2010, that one judge could be eliminated from the 48th District Court. The elimination would supposedly be based on attrition at some point in the future. Do you agree with the state’s assessment that there is current work for only 2.3 judges in the court? Has caseload increased since the 2011 report was issued?
The legislature placed the 48th District Court on track for elimination of a judicial seat when a retirement occurs. The court’s caseload fluctuates based on a variety of factors and has ranged from 33,000-52,000 cases annually. Labor intensive civil cases, motions and landlord/tenant cases have increased. Caseload has also increased from 2017, so I do believe that the court necessitates three judges. However, the court will follow the intent of the legislation when a retirement occurs and will work diligently to ensure that cases be handled without delay and continue to serve the public diligently.
JAIL TIME FOR FIRST TIME MIP
There has been ongoing criticism of some judges in the 48th District Court who have given jail time to first-time offending minors who have been found guilty of minors in possession of alcohol. In some cases, the criticism has also involved probation requirements that seem difficult to meet and then the minor is sentenced to jail time. Is jail time for first-time offending minors appropriate?
No, a first MIP is a civil infraction, not punishable by incarceration. The overwhelming majority of MIP cases have been dismissed without record for the individual. Some teens drink to dangerously high levels, use drugs and present themselves with addictions, mental health issues or other problems that need intervention. This becomes an opportunity for the court to address it with treatment protocol which may include education, counseling or testing designed to help and treat the individual. In these difficult cases involving alcohol dependency, I have received tremendous positive feedback from teens and their parents as they work toward recovery. My partnerships and field trips with many of our local schools also further my desire to educate and encourage our teens to be healthy, responsible and productive individuals.
SPECIAL PROGRAMS FOR DRUNK DRIVING
Are there special programs that the 48th District Court could be using to deal with drunk driving offenders as an alternative to jail time?
Judges are mandated to make decisions that protect the community and sometimes incarceration is warranted when drunk drivers gamble with the safety of our citizens. The court also uses special programs. For example, every defendant convicted of drunk driving goes through a comprehensive substance abuse assessment. The court’s drug/sobriety treatment protocol puts people on a path to recovery and includes intensive out-patient/in-patient treatment, frequent testing, 12-step programs, sponsors, and ignition interlocks with intensive monitoring by dedicated probation officers and the judges. Significantly, our defendants have only a 9.7 percent recidivism rate for reoffending with a new drug/alcohol crime within four years, while the state’s recidivism data for drug/sobriety courts is 16 percent, according to the Michigan Supreme Court 2017 annual report on Problem Solving Courts. Additionally, I have sentenced defendants, including drunk drivers, to complete over 148,200 hours of community service, translating into over $1 million of labor being put back into the community.
DISTRICT COURT IMPROVEMENTS
Are there any changes you would recommend for the district court that would improve procedures and/or help to conserve financial resources?
The Michigan Supreme Court has appointed me to serve as Chief Judge for four terms, as I continuously seek ways to improve efficiency, not wasting tax dollars. For example, the 48th District Court, like many neighboring courts, operates its own successful drug/sobriety treatment programs without seeking more tax dollars or grant funding, placing countless individuals on a path to recovery. I have implemented long-term cost saving measures by restructuring positions, cross-training staff, and reviewing all expenditures and legacy costs, resulting in savings of over $1.7 million. I am endorsed by many of our local elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, based on effective leadership at the court. This past year, I joined the voices of my fellow judges in urging the legislature to rescind Driver Responsibility Fees, which are now set to be rescinded. I am currently working on the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission standards, which will improve the indigent attorney system.
Why should a voter pick you over your opponent in this election? What makes you uniquely qualified for this position?
Every day, I make critical decisions about people’s lives, families, and homes. For the past 18 years, I have made rulings at criminal arraignments, preliminary examinations, sentencings, evidentiary hearings, bench and jury trials, motions, probation violation hearings, traffic infractions, performed weddings and am on call 24 hours a day for search warrants. My partnerships with our local schools have educated our children and teens about the law and substance abuse. I have been tireless in my mission to keep kids away from the grips of drugs and have been a witness to the recovery of countless defendants from drugs and alcohol through my court-ordered treatment programs. I believe that my record exemplifies experience, wisdom, even temperament, and a dedicated work ethic that is required to make important decisions for our community. Thank you to the citizens for supporting me in this extraordinary position these past 18 years.
Wechsler, of Sylvan Lake, owns her own law firm and is a managing broker at Woodward Commercial Group, is a graduate of University of Michigan Dearborn and University of Detroit School of Law.
I am not able to answer this question as it specifically relates to how it has impacted the 48th District Court, because I am not privy to that information. However, I can answer based on my experience as a defense attorney, practicing in District Courts across the metro area. I have handled numerous felony cases and by courts streamlining the process for preliminary hearings and accepting felony pleas, it has made the criminal process more efficient for everyone involved. It reduces the number of court appearances, which in turn decreases court docket congestion.
ELIMINATING JUDGE IN 48TH
I am familiar with the recommendation and the possibility of the 48th District Court eliminating one seat. However, I cannot answer this question because I am not privy to the current workload of the judges or whether the caseload in general has increased or decreased since 2011.
JAIL TIME FOR FIRST TIME MIP
As a defense attorney, I saw this practice first hand at the 48th District Court for several years. I represented numerous minors in possession of alcohol cases, where the minor received beyond difficult probation conditions, and when they inevitably violated, they were put in jail. I was always against this practice and do not believe it deterred behavior or protected the community. I have been told this practice ruined many lives for years. The law was changed in 2016 reducing first offense MIP’s to a state civil infraction. As of January 2018, judges can no longer jail first offense minor in possession of alcohol. They can however order substance abuse classes, community service and fines. Second and third offenses remain misdemeanors, meaning jail is still a possibility.
SPECIAL PROGRAMS FOR DRUNK DRIVING
Absolutely. We now know that Substance Use Disorder is a chronic brain disease, and relapse is part of it. There are 185 Problem Solving Courts across Michigan, with a focus on rehabilitation as an alternative to jail. These treatment programs are monitored and certified by the Michigan Supreme Court. Currently, the 48th District Court does not participate in any of these highly successful treatment programs; they use standard probation and jail. Drug/sobriety programs follow a model and a best practices guide, to help ensure the participants receive the treatment they need. These programs have been proven to reduce recidivism and relapse rates, thus providing a safer and healthier community for our citizens. Further, courts that are certified in a treatment program are able to grant restricted licenses, with interlock devices, to eligible probationers for drunk driving offenses. This practice helps to reduce unemployment rates as well. Rehabilitating our non-violent addicted citizens is a necessity for the health and welfare of our community. It is time that the 48th District Court implements this highly successful program!
DISTRICT COURT IMPROVEMENTS
The court can apply for both state and federal grants to implement a treatment program. These grants are given to participating courts annually to help offset the costs associated with getting the treatment program off the ground, and helping them continue to function year after year. These treatment programs improve court procedures and conserve financial resources.
As an attorney for over 18 years, I understand the enormity of what we do for a living, whether I am representing someone that could lose their freedom, or representing a child that may be separated from their parents. Every day, I am tasked with making difficult decisions that affect countless lives. I must be unbiased, tough, compassionate and fair, simultaneously, putting aside any personal beliefs to do what is the best interest of my client. I can comprehend voluminous amounts of complex information, and make critical decisions quickly. I am excellent at listening to all the arguments, multitasking, research and writing as well. But most importantly, I have the experience, leadership and passion to take the 48th District Court to the next level. There are more innovative and creative approaches to ongoing issues that are plaguing our community, that I would like to see implemented in the 48th District Court.