GRAND RAPIDS — Former Delta Strategy Executive Director Penelope Pestle will be honored with the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award in a special Law Day ceremony this afternoon at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School campus in downtown Grand Rapids.
The award recognizes a non-lawyer or a nonprofit organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the cause of justice or has advanced public understanding of the Constitution and the U.S. legal system.
Recent winners include representatives of Degage Ministries, the Community Media Center, Dispute Resolution Center, Kent County Intermediate Schools and the Children’s Assessment Center.
Pestle, currently principal of consulting firm Potential Community Systems Change, will be recognized for her work with the Re-Entry Roundtable of Kent County as leader of Delta Strategy.
At the request of business leaders and public officials, Delta Strategy convened the Ex-Offender Dialogue Group in July 2002. Civic-minded businesses were interested in ex-offenders as a potential employment resource; lawmakers were desperate to alleviate the burdensome costs of the corrections system.
In the prior year, 51,000 people were incarcerated in Michigan. Over 10,000 inmates are released from Michigan prisons each year. Of those released in 2002, 40 percent have since returned to prison. Locally, 6,300 people received a sentence to Kent County Jail that year; 92 percent had been there before. Each prisoner costs the state many times that of educating a K-12 student: $28,000 annually at a state penitentiary, $16,000 annually at the Kent County Jail.
“The way it’s been done, our corrections systems has only treated a symptom, but not the cause,” Pestle said. “Locally, people were very concerned about all these people coming back into the community who we do not have resources for.”
By and large, offenders are more likely to be poor, substance dependent, unemployed and unskilled, of color and from unstable family situations. When individuals re-enter society, they face these same issues, but with added burdens from the criminal justice system, including large fines, no identification, and employers who are unwilling to accept criminal records.
“They come back into the community and don’t have the wherewithal to become a stable resident,” Pestle said. “They don’t have a job, stable housing; they might have health issues or children that are sick. All these things play into it, and they are more likely to offend because they don’t think they have any options.”
The Re-Entry Roundtable of Kent County was launched from the initial meeting of 57 stakeholders in 2002.
The group has been a key player locally for the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative and the U.S. Department of Labor and Michigan Works!, facilitating a $495,000 grant toward an employment program currently serving 300 ex-offenders.
It continues to generate discussion and action within a variety of action groups between lawmakers, educators, employers, faith-based organizations and mentors, Veterans Affairs administrators and the Employment Resource Center.
The program has also hosted two highly successful community re-entry resource fairs, attracting 600 people and 75 human service agencies.
Michael Chielens, Legal Aid of Western Michigan executive director, who nominated Pestle for the award, said: “Her work is so important because it addresses something we’re all starting to realize — that we send these people to jail or prison, but haven’t really given any thought to what we do with them when they get out. The fact of the matter is these people face a lot of hurdles to get back into the mainstream.”
In 2004, the Liberty Bell Award went to a related initiative, Degage Ministries’ ID program, a start-to-finish program to help primarily ex-offenders and transients attain a Michigan State Identification card.
Other individuals being recognized by the bar include Don LeDuc, president of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, with the annual President’s Award, and L. Roland Roegge of Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge, with the Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award.