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Opening up a whole new pool of potential employees: Criminal Justice Reform and the West Michigan Policy Forum

October 13, 2019

Last Monday, the Econ Club of Grand Rapids hosted a panel discussion on the topic of criminal justice reform in Michigan.

The panel was moderated by the VP of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Andy  Johnston, who was quoted in an MLive article stating: 

It will help make us safer, it will spend our taxpayer dollars better, and it opens up a whole new pool of potential employees. We need to increase our workforce participation rate in West Michigan, and one of the ways we can do that is being one of the best communities out there when it comes to getting returning citizens connected with employment.”

Not surprising that someone with the Chamber of Commerce would make criminal justice reform about jobs, or as Johnston stated, “it opens up a whole new pool of potential employees.”

Those on the panel were echoing much of the same sentiment. The panel of three consisted of a CEO, the director of a non-profit criminal justice reform group and a strategist from the neo-liberal think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

JT Weis is the CEO of Arbor Industries, a company based in Holland that hires former felons. Weis says his faith dictates that he hire former felons. Indeed, for Weis, his faith is pretty central to who he is. The CEO of Arbor Industries is the School Board President of Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids, a westside Catholic school that has gone through a significant change in recent years, under the leadership of Rev. Robert Sirico. Sirico is the founder and leader of the Acton Institute, also based in Grand Rapids. In addition, Weis and his family are involved in the conservative Catholic radio station Holy Family Radio and they are active participants in the anti-abortion March for Life actions.

Leonore Anderson is the President of the Alliance for Safety & Justice, a rather moderate group that has worked on efforts to reform state legislation in numerous states in the US. The Alliance for Safety & Justice is a mild criminal justice reform non-profit.

The third member of the panel was David Guenthner, a senior strategist with the Mackinac Center. Guenthner, who spent years working for another conservative think tank based in Texas, now works for the Mackinac Center which is a strong supporter of privatizing the prison system.

The MLive did not share many details of the panelists or what they were advocating for during the Econ Club gathering. The MLive story did include some comments from Doug DeVos on the subject, even though the article does not indicate in what capacity DeVos was speaking. We assume that DeVos was speaking on behalf of the West Michigan Policy Forum (WMPF), since he wrote an opinion piece for the Detroit News the day after the MLive article on the Econ Club event. 

There is not much compelling information in DeVos’ opinion piece, although he does source specific legislation that the WMPF would like to pass. In fact, the West Michigan Policy Forum has some specific changes they would like to see in the area of Criminal Justice, such as: 

  • Earned time credits (i.e. job training)
  • Removing barriers to employment (licensing reform)
  • Raise the age (allow up to 18 yrs. old in juvenile court)
  • Civil asset forfeiture (require conviction)
  • Cash bail reform (judicial discretion)

Now, these are not bad policies, but they are most definitely mild reforms that do not address more structural issues or root causes. In both the MLive article about the panel discussion and the opinion piece by DeVos, there is not one mention about race, racism or how the current criminal justice system disproportionately impacts black and latinx communities. The West Michigan Policy Forum is not advocating for an end to police violence or ICE repression, they are not calling for a reduction in state or local budgeting for police, they are not calling for an end to private prisons or the end of detention centers for immigrants.

We should not be fooled by the mild criminal justice reforms that the West Michigan Policy Forum are advocating for. These “reforms” do not threatened business as usual politics, but they do benefit the members of the business community that are always looking for new sources of low wage workers and ways to promote the communities where they are based as “safe communities.”

What Michigan and the rest of the country needs is what a growing number of people are gravitating towards, which is a prison abolitionist stance. The Prison Abolition movement states: 

Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.

In more concrete terms, we can look to the vision of the Movement for Black Lives, which has laid out a very clear vision and platform for what prison abolition would look like. In the section End the War on Black People, they list 10 things that would effectively move in the direction of abolishing prisons. In addition, under the section of Community Control, they are calling for democratic control of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. 

These are the kind of visionary goals that we should be working towards, goals that are rooted in radical imagination and not the neo-liberal agenda of those who are part of the existing systems of power and oppression. When are we going to stop celebrating the vision of those who have most of the wealth in this community, while thousands live in poverty? When are we going to stop listening to those who have historically financed politicians that have promoted mass incarceration? When are we going to act in solidarity with those who have been most affected by the Prison Industrial Complex?

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