TRAVERSE CITY — Nonprofit advocacy group Before, During and After Incarceration hosted a free, public event aimed at sharing ideas to reform the justice system and validating stories of those incarcerated, sometimes wrongfully.

“I see people hungry for change,” said jail clergyman Tom Bousamra, as former inmates, family, law enforcement officers, attorneys, probation officers, jail administrators and elected officials filled the pews of Central United Methodist Church Thursday night.

“I always lead with the idea that the incarcerated are our neighbors, our co-workers, our fellow parishioners. How do we want them to come back into the community? Restored with their feet on the ground or are we happy to pretend they don’t exist and watch them go back to jail.”

Keynote speaker Hakim Crampton, a Detroit native appointed to the state’s Indigent Defense Commission by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, shared his personal story of wrongful conviction.

Crampton, who was 17 at the time, was arrested for murder in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1991, after an acquaintance made a false confession.

He was paroled in 2006 with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, but his interaction with the justice system did not end.

“I’m still on parole,” he told the audience. “I had to get permission just to come here. Despite the fact that there are some good people who work in corrections, there are still some very, very serious problems.”

Sheriff Tom Bensley, Undersheriff Mike Shea, Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg, Jail Administrator Chris Barsheff and County Commissioners Betsy Coffia and Bryce Hundley were in the audience; District Court Judges Robert Cooney and Michael Stepka spoke on a panel with Probation Officer Chuck Welch and ACLU representative Anna Dituri.

“I do volunteer work for ATS here in town and I’m just totally stoked about this,” said Ty Parsons of Traverse City, who was in the audience with his friend, Jeremy Bonneau. Parsons said some clients of Addiction Treatment Services are former inmates.

Toni Stanfield, a member of BDAI’s board and the director of Life Transitions Counseling, said substance abuse and mental health problems can be traced back to the 1980s when state mental hospitals were closed.

“Community programs were not developed, and those individuals have become part of other institutions namely, jails and prisons,” she said. “So we just shifted them from one institution to another.”

Speakers shared the following statistics:

  • U.S. jail and prison population is 2.5 million, 7 to 10 percent, or between 175,000 and 250,000, have been wrongfully convicted. (Crampton)
  • When one person is incarcerated, 37 people are affected. (Bousamra)
  • Grand Traverse County District Court presides over 14,000 to 15,000 cases a year. 80 percent are criminal cases; 20 percent are civil cases. (Stepka)
  • 80 percent of cases in District Court are related to alcohol or substance abuse. (Cooney)
  • 65 percent of inmates have mental health challenges. (Stanfield)

Stanfield received a round of applause when she implored decision-makers to come up with solutions for mental health treatment, such as mental health court, more in-patient beds and more case management support.

“As cancer cannot be corrected, schizophrenia cannot be corrected, bi-polar cannot be corrected, substance abuse cannot be corrected. It’s a disease. Without treatment people need to be safe and jail is the only option now.”

One of the programs BDAI offers is training for volunteer coaches to mentor someone being released from jail. Bousamra said he based the program on the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Program, which saw recidivism rates drop from two-thirds to one-third.

“We hope that the coach will help with some initial adjustments, like transportation to an appointment, and after that, a weekly contact, hopefully face to face,” Bousamra said.

Ten volunteers have just completed the training and Jail Administrator Barsheff said he is working with BDAI on the new program.

“It’s been in the works for months and I think it’s a great idea,” Barsheff said. “For a coach to connect with someone being released, to be someone they can trust, I fully support that.”

More information about BDAI is available on their website, bdaiconnect.org.

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