GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After a career that spans close to 50 years, you might expect most members of law enforcement to measure their success by the number of bad guys they took off the street.
Or the number of crimes solved and prevented.
Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma, who announced his retirement this week, also looks at the lives of inmates changed for the better after they left his jail.
“They come in here… they don’t have any hope,” said Sarah Heaton, a woman’s chaplain at the Kent County Correctional Facility. “They come in and they’re in a very hopeless situation. Everything’s in complete turmoil and in an uproar, and we can come in and bring a light into that darkness.”
And the jail sanctuary is known as God Pods.
Established in 2007, God Pods were part of existing faith-based programs that were expanded during Stelma’s five terms as Kent County Sheriff. Stelma was looking for a way to address recidivism rates and the related costs that extend well beyond the jail walls.
“There’s another round of victims. There’s another cost of investigation, there’s another cost for prosecution, another cost for incarceration,” Stelma said.
The jail has a number of programs to help inmates better themselves through education, job training and other skills.
“But if their attitude about life, if their attitude about their spouse and their families and their kids and their responsibility in the community haven’t changed, (it) doesn’t have much of an impact,” Stelma said of the programs which emphasis Judeo-Christian principles. “Principles of life that our country and most citizens of the world adhere to, as to why you don’t victimize people. Why you don’t steal. Why you don’t assault people.”
The program is voluntary for inmates and the guidance doesn’t end at the God Pods doors: it helps inmates transition to the outside world.
Proof of success is not only in the souls healed, but the number of return visits to the jail.
In ten years, recidivism rates at the Kent County Correctional Facility have dropped from the high 60s, which is about the national average, to 27 percent.
“There are many, many fewer victims in our community because of this program,” Stelma said. “And the expense on tax dollars has been reduced amazingly.”
Stelma’s retirement is effective Nov. 1, 2018. The process to name a replacement is set to begin in the next few weeks.