06/30/2014 - Ralph Kinney has a dream of helping those who've gotten themselves into trouble with the law to redeem themselves, placing short-term offenders into an academic boot camp where they could attain academic and career services, wellness and substance abuse prevention courses, and behavior modification.
He has been working with the state of Michigan to achieve that goal, and has sought to place his first boot camp on a site in Pontiac in Oakland County near the Bloomfield Township border. While that site recently fell through, he is looking at other Oakland County locations.
Officials in Oakland County government, however, want nothing to do with it.
Kinney is a former assistant Wayne County executive and deputy chief at the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, who was fired by county executive Robert Ficano in 2007, allegedly for reporting the illegal usage of county money and for refusing to campaign for Ficano. He filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Ficano in 2010, alleging corruption and cronyism, and claimed he was owed $50,000 in back pay and other damages. Kinney lost the lawsuit, as well as its appeal. Today, according to his LinkedIn page, Kinney is an experienced investigator and entrepreneur. Since January 2011, he has been chief executive officer of the Wolverine Campus Project.
While Kinney did not return numerous calls left for him by Downtown Publications, Nancy Mouradian, who said she is acting as the communications director for the Wolverine Campus Project, said it is "still in its infancy, which would be an academic boot camp for non-violent offenders." She affirmed the architects for the project were Kinney and the late Dr. Arthur M. Carter.
According to the white paper, first created in November 2013, which Mouradian said former Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga (now a probate court judge in Macomb County) helped craft, the Wolverine Campus Project is an academic boot camp designed to divert short-term offenders from prison to a secure on-campus, 24/7, residential private facility, for those who have been sentenced to terms of under 24 months. The boot camp would offer education and career training, thereby creating new taxpayers, Kinney asserted in the paper.
The proposal stated that those eligible would be short-term felons who may qualify for up to 12 months of academic and career services. The Wolverine Campus Project would hypothetically offer everyone entering the facility, within their first 10 days, diagnostic testing in digital literacy courses, in wellness and substance abuse prevention courses; behavior management and ethics-based behavioral courses; work study and/or apprenticeships; and based upon individual assessments, special education towards high school completion; general education towards high school completion; and S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) college courses.
To enroll these prisoners into the Wolverine Campus project, wherever it ends up, according to the boot camp's proposal, the prisoner's defense attorney would need to apply to the county prosecutor for a diversionary sentence. The county prosecutor would then recommend a diversion sentence at the boot camp to the circuit court judge, who has the discretion to place the prisoner there, pursuant to sentencing guidelines. Then, hypothetically, the Wolverine Campus boot camp would accept the prisoner for enrollment.
Until a few weeks ago, Kinney was telling Oakland County officials, local officials, retired judges, proposed investors, the Michigan Department of Corrections and others that he intended to purchase and place the boot camp facility at 2000 Centerpoint Parkway in Pontiac, a vacant industrial property which was at one time part of the larger Pontiac Central Manufacturing and Assembly Plant Campus. The property includes a 1.2 million square foot former engineering building and a paved parking lot.
But the Centerpoint campus posed significant issues to others. Adjacent property owners, most notably Linden Nelson, chairman and CEO of Michigan Motion Picture Studios, was not delighted at the prospect of having a boot camp with felons, short-term or otherwise, at a large property next door to his movie studio, especially with large scale productions such as "Batman Vs. Superman", starring Ben Affleck, among others, filming at Michigan Motion Picture Studios.
Also located at or near the Centerpoint campus is a school, Kids Now Childhood Development Center, Hewlett Packard and Ultimate Soccer Arenas.
Township officials in Bloomfield Township, Auburn Hills and Waterford weren't thrilled, either. Pontiac, especially the Centerpoint campus, is at the edge of Bloomfield Township's border. "I'm pretty emphatic that Bloomfield Township residents would oppose that facility being there," said Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie.
Savoie recounts a luncheon he was at of about 15 to 20 invited guests in early May where the featured guest was Kinney. Also at the meeting were several retired judges, including Barry Grant and Fred Messner, and Bloomfield Township Police Chief Geoff Gaudard. Kinney described to the group his proposed project, and announced that "he has a buy in from (Oakland County Sheriff Mike) Bouchard's office. I knew that to not be true. I turned to Gaudard, and he indicated as well that Bouchard is not in favor of this."
Undersheriff Mike McCabe confirmed that. "Anyone who says the sheriff supports the Wolverine project is a liar," McCabe told Downtown.
"I told Kinney at this lunch that I'm not looking for a convicted felon to have free access to our community, to come and go to a trade school," Savoie said. "They kept defending the concept, rather than the location. Kinney said, 'We want a location that doesn't feel like a prison, but like they're part of society.' As far as I'm concerned, I don't know that they've earned the right to come and go in our society. As part of it, they would enroll these felons in local schools and trade school, and receive tuition reimbursement. So they'd be out in the community rather than having educators brought into the boot camp. It should be done within their confinement rather than walking the streets of Oakland County.
"I've got real reservations about locations near our community. I like the concept – any way you can give someone a way to have a trade and let them make money is good. But giving them free reign in our community is not good. How do you make our residents and our law enforcement feel safe?
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson is also against having a private short-term felon boot camp within the county, as is Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper – who was unaware of its possibility until contacted for this article.
"I have not heard hide nor hair about this. I've never talked to him," Cooper exclaimed. "It's essentially a privatized boot camp. It's a scam. Legally, he can't do it with juveniles. Further, it incenses me that someone is going around using my name and my colleagues' names without our permission. It's just plain fraud. If you want to use my name, or the sheriff's, or Brooks (Patterson), you better get our permission first."
Oakland County Circuit Court Chief Judge Nanci Grant said she had never heard of the Wolverine Campus Project.
Kinney's spokesperson, Mouradian, said, "Nothing has been finalized in Oakland County, but he has been looking."
As of May 21, the Centerpoint location is a dead deal. Nelson said he received a letter from Kinney stating that he was pulling the Wolverine project from 2000 Centerpoint Parkway. The letter continued, "We are no longer pursuing any site in the city of Pontiac."
Savoie thought that the Wolverine Campus Project had turned to the Centerpoint Parkway site after being turned down on a Southfield site by Southfield officials, but Mouradian could not confirm this and Southfield officials could not be reached.
Mouradian confirmed that the team was not looking at any sites in the city of Pontiac at this time, but could not identify where they were looking. She said he may be looking in Macomb or other counties as well as Oakland for an initial site, but was not certain.
Prosecutor Cooper also brought up a key question. "Where is the state money coming from? There is no money. Of course you want to help troubled kids. But this is not the way," she said.
The Wolverine Campus Project included a signed letter, dated October 23, 2013, from Jeffrey Seskin of JSS Management in Plymouth, a solid waste management company, which stated that JSS Management, in partnership with its strategic equity partners, would provide Wolverine Campuses a commitment to provide matching funds with the state of Michigan of up to $4 million.
While Seskin did not return repeated calls, Russ Marlin, public information specialist for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said that "We (the state) cannot match funds. We have told them that. They need to find all of their own start up funding, self-fund the project, and then partner with the sheriff."
Unlike Oakland County and local officials, Marlin is in favor of the project, if the details can be worked out. He said he has met with Kinney and his associates several times over the past year.
"In concept, what he is trying to do is revolutionary and could be great," Marlin said.
He explained that the department of corrections is experiencing an adjustment to the type of prisoners they are receiving. "What we are seeing is a sharp increase in short-termers, those who are given two-years or less of a sentence. More than 50 percent of our intake each year are these prisoners," Marlin said. "There's a misconception that people are sentenced to long prison sentences. About 5,000 inmates per year come to prison with two years or less, and often they have spent time in a county prison for a while, so they get credit for that time, so they may only be in prison for a year or 18 months."
Marlin said that is the group that Kinney and the Wolverine Campus Project boot camp is targeting. "It's offering prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges an option, as a way to sentence them, and then move them back into society," he asserted. "If you go to prison, and let's say you had a stable home, employment – it would all be severed. You could go to a prison in the UP, for example, away from your job, your family, and all for a short term. We're really limited to what services and rehabilitation we can offer to those inmates."
Bob Maxfield, interim dean of the School of Education at Oakland University, noted that years ago, Children's Village of Oakland County had a successful boot camp operated through the court system. "The money for these kinds of services has dried up, leaving youths and young adults with nothing but getting locked up somewhere," Maxfield said. "My opinion is, the more we have for them, the better. Putting teens in prison is reprehensible. School districts and local colleges can help. When I was superintendent with Farmington Schools, we helped with Children's Village, as well as Boys' and Girls' Republic, which doesn't exist anymore, that used to be a residential facility on Nine Mile. Farmington Schools provided the educational aspect."
The Wolverine proposal states the educational service provider will be Bay Mills Community College, out of Saginaw, but Mouradian said she currently could not confirm that.
While this would technically not be a juvenile boot camp, Marlin said that most offenders who come into the corrections system are a younger demographic, between the ages 18 and 22.
By state statute, MCL 400.1303, only the department of corrections "shall establish one or more juvenile boot camps to house or train juveniles who are ordered to participate in a juvenile boot camp program after commitment under that section to a county juvenile agency for placement." Further, MCL 400.1304 states that the program "shall provide a program of physically strenuous work and exercise, patterned after military basic training, and other programming as the department determines, including at a minimum educational and substance abuse programs, and counseling. A juvenile boot camp program shall be restricted to juveniles of the same sex."
Cooper stated that the Wolverine Project, if it ever gets off the ground, must deal with offenders older than 18, because "juvenile facilities must have a license from the Department of Human Services," she said. "No non-governmental agency can be licensed, per DHS. It can't be an overnight treatment, only a daytime treatment center."
However, Marlin said the Wolverine Campus Project could fall under the Prisoner Reimbursement to the County Act of 1984, which states that a county can seek reimbursement of up to $60 a day per prisoner for the cost of maintaining a prisoner.
"I told Ralph (Kinney) and the Wolverine people there is a need for this, and a need to house these people. They can do it cheaper than we can. We're more geared for longer sentences. Our average sentence is 4.5 years, and our average cost per inmate is $34,000," Marlin said. "If a local judge is going to sentence someone for only a year, maybe it would make more sense for them to stay in their local community."
But there's a bit of an issue. Those local dollars? The $60 a day for up to 365 days would have go to the county sheriff's office, and not to the private operator, like Kinney and the Wolverine Campus project. "They must partner with the local sheriff's office," Marlin stated emphatically. "We cannot reimburse a private entity. We would pay the sheriff's office, and they would pay the Wolverine group. Otherwise we would have to accept RFPs (Request for Proposals) from lots of groups, and we don't do that."
In order to accomplish that, Marlin explained, all parties have to agree to participate in a felon's plea bargain. "It's been decided. The person is definitely going to prison. He signs off. The prosecutor signs off, the defense attorney has to sign off, and the circuit court judge has to sign off. All of the parties have to sign off on it for it to go through. Then if the person stays local, the county gets reimbursed by the DOC for up to a year."
Therein lies the rub. While in theory, finding a productive alternative to putting adult youth in prison and throwing away the key sounds ideal, the practicum places risks and burdens upon communities.
"Kinney seemed like a very good and very sincere man, who was genuinely caring, genuinely concerned, and he had a genuine interest in helping these felons," Savoie said. "He's seen the system, and the system has failed. I just don't think this is good for our community or any community."