Kent County voters meet to discuss criminal justice reform

Posted at 10:51 PM, May 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-20 22:52:00-04

WYOMING, Mich.-- Though the November midterm elections are months away, voters got together in Wyoming Sunday night to discuss how they want new lawmakers to improve the local criminal justice system.

"I just hope that people will be willing to be engaged in the process," Grand Rapids resident Dain Gates tells FOX 17. "To be silent is to be complicit and not to engage, I think, is error."

The forum was organized by Grand Rapids United Progressives, Young Democrats of Michigan, Greater Grand Rapids Young Democrats, and other local Democratic organizations, as well as candidates for various offices, including Robert Van Kirk, Bob Smith, Peter Ricketson, and Mike Herrera Johnson.

Some voters who were at the forum, held at Frankie V's, say they are focused on changing how non-violent offenders are treated, namely drug offenders and undocumented immigrants.

Others expressed concern over the high percentage of inmates who are incarcerated for illegal drug use rather than being treated for their addiction.

Another issue discussed at the forum was communication between people of color and local police. According to Robert Van Kirk, a candidate for representative in the 77th District of the state house, many undocumented immigrants in Wyoming are too afraid to call police when they need to because they fear deportation. Van Kirk says this allows crime to thrive in vulnerable neighborhoods.

“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, Independent, Green Party, Libertarian, whatever, you should be concerned with better outcomes for our community for better safety in our community," Van Kirk says.

Van Kirk supports "banning the box," which would forbid employers from asking applicants for jobs if they have been convicted of a felony. He says the practice prevents reformed convicts from reentering the job force, which perpetuates a cycle of poverty and disproportionately harms minorities.

“What we see in the criminal justice system here in the United States, here in Michigan, here in Kent County, you see racialized disparities where African Americans and members of the Hispanic community have worse outcomes after interacting with the criminal justice system than caucasians, than white people in this community," Van Kirk says.

Mike Herrera Johnson, a candidate for Kent County commissioner, tells FOX 17 there are initiatives that can improve communication and trust between minorities and law enforcement, "making a lot of the local people more comfortable with law enforcement, as far as providing the proper education on how to handle a lot of the Hispanic communities and bridging that gap between them," Herrera Johnson tells FOX 17.

Organizers of Sunday's forum say they hope to have more of these events and that members of law enforcement are always welcome to collaborate with them.