Audrey Leenhouts stands beside artwork featuring her late husband, which reportedly was published with a Reader’s Digest article, at the 44th District Court April 28.

Audrey Leenhouts stands beside artwork featuring her late husband, which reportedly was published with a Reader’s Digest article, at the 44th District Court April 28.

Photo by Sean Work


Court unveils tribute to Royal Oak judge

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published May 8, 2019

 Judge Derek Meinecke delivers closing remarks during a dedication ceremony for the recently renamed Judge Keith J. Leenhouts Probation Department at the 44th District Court  April 28.

Judge Derek Meinecke delivers closing remarks during a dedication ceremony for the recently renamed Judge Keith J. Leenhouts Probation Department at the 44th District Court April 28.

Photo by Sean Work

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ROYAL OAK — On April 23, the 44th District Court held a dedication ceremony for its recently renamed Judge Keith J. Leenhouts Probation Department.

Visitors to the court can learn more about the late judge’s efforts to reform probation practices — not only in Royal Oak, but also nationwide — through a memorial located on the first floor.

Leenhouts, a lifelong resident of Royal Oak, served as a judge from 1959 to 1969. He died in April 2016 at the age of 90.

In 1960, Leenhouts established a program that paired young repeat offenders with volunteers to constructively spend time together, such as attending a baseball game.

At the time, the idea was revolutionary, but statistics showed that a compassionate approach significantly reduced recidivism.

The Volunteers In Probation program began with a team of eight of Leenhouts’ friends. By 1973, the program had spread throughout the country, with 300,000 citizens in 2,000 courts volunteering 12 hours per month, according to the 44th District Court.

Judge Derek Meinecke, who was elected as a 44th District Court judge in November 2012, came up with the idea for the memorial, and along with Leenhouts’ son, Jim Leenhouts, the pair made the vision a reality. The Royal Oak Historical Society helped to solicit donations, which funded the entire endeavor.

Jim Leenhouts said his father continued to work with the program up until five years before his death.

“He just truly loved people,” said Kathy Leenhouts, wife of Jim Leenhouts. “It didn’t matter if you were the president of a company or the guy that took the money at a parking lot. He just loved people.”

Meinecke credited Keith Leenhouts as a mentor who was responsible for his own community-first approach to judgeship, and he called the VIP program “transformative.”

“In 1959, your choice was, if you were dealing with a misdemeanor defendant, you basically had the opportunity to put them in jail or give them a fine, or both,” Meinecke said. “Judge Leenhouts rightly saw that there was a problem with that, and rather than going along with things, he said there’s got to be a solution to this.”

In 1969, Leenhouts resigned from the bench to take the program nationwide. His efforts were featured in Reader’s Digest and Look magazine, and he won multiple prestigious awards, including being honored by five U.S. presidents.

“Judge Leenhouts’ high moral character and his genuine concern for the individual and this community will be his legacy and will have a lasting impact on the history of Royal Oak,” said Mike Frentz, of the Royal Oak Historical Society.

Frentz recalled first meeting Leenhouts during an eighth grade field trip to the court, which at that time was located inside Royal Oak City Hall.

“I sat in the gallery with my classmates and witnessed him firsthand,” Frentz said. “I was in awe of his calm demeanor and authority, and it left an impression on me to this day.”

While the VIP program is no longer necessary, as the 44th District Court has certified probation officers to monitor and work with defendants, Meinecke said Leenhouts helped mold the modern take on probation practices.

“So many people that come into court systems are either standing still or going backwards, and (he instilled) the idea that there’s something more in this world for them,” Meinecke said. “When this display went up, there was almost an extra element of pride that went into my probation officers. They are stewards of this legacy themselves.”

The 44th District Court is located at 400 E. 11 Mile Road, east of South Troy Street.

Call Staff Writer Sarah Wojcik at (586) 218-5006.

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