The Grand Rapids Association of Pastors (G-RAP) has formed its first advisory committee: the Criminal Justice group will be lead by Rev. Jerry Bishop of LifeQuest Ministries and Rev. Jack Kooreman of Grace Christian Reformed Church. It aims to bring together members of G-RAP and local content experts to go deeper into the subject than there is time for during regular meetings. The committee will report back to the group to inform them about local issues, to recommend things that every pastor can do, and to ask pastors to take action.
The speaker for the May 19th meeting at Hope Church was our very own Rev. Jerry Bishop. He detailed his recent work surrounding a proposed change in how Kent County was planning to deal with people who have bench warrants for child support arrears. Normally, someone in that situation would only be arrested if they were stopped for something else, such as a traffic ticket. But the Kent County Commission and the new head of the Friend of the Court (FOC), Daniel J. Fojtik, worked with the state to fund two new deputies who would go to the residences of those with child support bench warrants and, if the person didn’t comply, arrest the person. These deputies are slated to begin work on July 1.
Earlier this month, Rev. Bishop and a representative from Strong Fathers met with Fojtik, who indicated that the budget was in place and approved, and that the county and FOC were going ahead with this plan. Bishop reported: “The director gave no matrix for how the deputies would determine whether someone can pay.” The two deputies would not have received social services training and would not be given benchmarks for what compliance would consist of. It was clear to Bishop that this was “a collection plan, not a community-based plan.”
When there was no desire on the part of the FOC director to talk about alternatives or about postponing the starting date for this program, Bishop contacted everyone he could think of: Grand Rapids Chief of Police, ACLU, Department of Justice, National Fatherhood Initiative, City Commissioners. Many of the people he contacted hadn’t heard about this new policy, including Chief David Rahinsky.
Bishop’s purpose in his communications was clear: “We are not trying to enable deadbeat fathers, but we are not trying to encourage arrest-first policies, either.”
He highlighted other jail-diversion programs, such as House Bill 308 in Georgia, and even Kent County’s own now-expired REACH program, with increasing collections yet not creating the havoc an arrest does. He pointed out that if people did not comply to the deputies’ satisfaction, they could be arrested and taken away while they were in charge of their children, which would cause Child Protective Services to be called, not to mention the court fees piled on top of the child support owed. He also expressed concerns about the safety of the deputies.
His work has brought about some constructive conversations and he had a meeting on May 26 with the Undersheriff and a City Commissioner.
The remainder of his talk centered around encouraging senior pastors to attend court themselves:
“Showing up in court is as important as prayer, Bible study, and Sunday service. We can be a real aid. It could make the difference between community service that could be done at your church and incarceration. Meeting with a prosecutor can make the difference between felony and misdemeanor.”
Now is a good time to do the latter, since longtime Prosecuting Attorney William A. Forsyth is leaving, and there will be a new one: Chris R. Becker. It should be noted that Bishop did not discourage associate pastors from attending court or contacting judges or prosecutors -- the only way to make a difference is to be known, and it’s never too early to start being known.
Here are some things any pastor can do, both about this Friend of the Court issue, and about criminal justice matters in Grand Rapids:
1. Contact your city and county commissioners and express your concerns about this program. Encourage them to explore new sources of funding for the jail diversion program, REACH, instead of funding this arrest-first plan.
2. Be a face in front of the judges and attend court, both for your own education, and when a parishioner needs you.
3. If you have parishioners with child support arrears, send them to the Hope Clinic at LifeQuest Ministries, a monthly safe zone (in concert with Strong Fathers) where people can resolve their FOC warrants and get their driver’s licenses restored. The next one is June 14, 10am-2pm. People attending can call Tony Jolliffi at 616-953-0507 and leave their full name and phone number.
4. Contact us if you're interested in being on the Criminal Justice Advisory Committee.