Grand Rapids Economic Club hears the business case for criminal justice reform


Left to right are Andy Johnston of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce; JT Weis, owner of Abcor Industries, who makes a practice of hiring returning citizens; Lenore Anderson from the Alliance for Safety and Justice; David Guenthner of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy; and panel organizer Doug DeVos, former CEO of Amway.

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Two days after the panelists at Edgewood Church were discussing the issue of pretrial reform in the criminal justice system, another panel explored different aspects of reforming that system in a very different venue.
Some might be surprised to hear that that venue was the Economic Club of Grand Rapids biweekly luncheon at the J.W. Marriott Hotel, but that is a reflection of changing views on criminal justice reform.
In fact, the advantages of reform for those of more conservative bent and of transforming the views of business people about re-entering citizens was the central topic of the discussion.

The panel’s moderator was Vice President of Governmental Affairs Andy Johnston of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, who has just been named to the national Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives' 40 Under 40 class. He effectively transitioned the conversation among three panelists who had different, though compatible, views.

JT Weis, a business owner who has focused on hiring people who had served prison time and are now returning to society, said that he has had great results. Though he did it because he believes it is the right thing to do, his Holland-based  Abcor Industries – which creates sustainable wood products through “power-coating” – has clearly benefited economically.

“I had a great, successful corporate career and it was totally meaningless,” he said in a later interview. “My faith has driven me to do this but, you know, it’s just great to live a more meaningful existence.

“We have unbelievable amounts of evidence that this is working,” he added. “We’ve promoted people, we have people buying homes, people whose lives are good. We’ve formed this culture and we’re on a

At the luncheon he said not to overcomplicate it, and added that he thinks the impetus should come from the private sector.

Johnston pointed out the pioneering work of Cascade Engineering as well as the progress made by the GR?Chamber of Commerce’s own Returning Citizens Working Group, which now counts 117 local companies hiring re-entering inmates.

Panelist Lenore Anderson’s organization, The Alliance for Safety and Justice, divides its work into two prongs: one is protecting the rights of survivors of crime, and the other is on assisting people who have done prison time to return to productive, crime-free lives.

“[This] is somewhat surprising, but there’s a presumption that what survivors of crime want is the toughest possible outcome, but in surveying victims of crime – we have 30,000 survivors of crime as members – most of them want more than anything  that what happened to them will never happen again.

“This is a system that isn’t working well for victims of crime and it also isn’t working well to stop the cycle of crime for those who have been convicted,” added Anderson, who is the organization’s Executive Director and an attorney.

The third panelist, David Guenthner, came to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy from The Texas Public Policy Foundation. He said that Texas, facing a $2.65 billion expenditure to build enough prison space, pulled together his organization and a more liberal one to solve the problem.

“The Speaker of the House ... said eight words that changed the direction of the state: ‘Don’t build more prisons. They cost too much,’” said Guenthner, who has worked to reframe system reform for conservatives.

It was noted that the Michigan legislature has introduced a package of bills intended to move reforms forward, including expungement reform. Three legislators attended.

The Econ Club mission is “to provide a forum to connect, inform and inspire our diverse community about today’s economic issues and relevant topics of the day.” Current president  Thomas Haas referred often to “connect, inform, inspire” during the luncheon, which was sponsored in part by Miller Johnson. Attorney Bob Wolford serves on the board.

The club’s Nov 4 luncheon will feature Patagonia executive Vincent Stanley, who co-authored The Responsible Company.