Amy Smitter, Development Director

Smitter joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2020, bringing her talent for fundraising and organization building with her.

Smitter previously served as the development director for Camp Quality Michigan, which serves children with cancer. Before that, she served as the chief operations officer of Habitat for Humanity of Michigan for five years. She also worked 20 years in leadership roles with Michigan Campus Compact and five years at its national umbrella organization, a nonprofit that seeks to build bridges between college and university learning and other communities, including prisons.

“I have great empathy for people and need to help,” she said. “I’ve seen the power of people to affect change, and I want to be part of that.”

She was a founding board member of the Michigan College Access Network in 2010 and has served as a board member and former chair since then, and is also active in community and educational volunteering in the Lansing area.

Smitter has a bachelor’s degree in political science and Russian and Eastern European studies from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in student personnel administration from Ball State University in Indiana.

She lives in Dimondale.

Photo Credit
Khalid Ibrahim
Eat Pomegranate Photography

Photo Credit
Khalid Ibrahim
Eat Pomegranate Photography

Anne Mahar, PhD, Research Specialist

Anne Mahar joined Safe & Just Michigan as our research specialist in 2019. She is SJM’s dedicated researcher, and in that role gathers and analyzes the organization’s criminal justice data. Before joining our team, she had been an assistant professor of criminal justice at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania.

She made the change from academia to policy because Anne believes that policy is the quicker way to bring about criminal justice reform.

“I feel I should be using my skills in research and statistics to make a change for the prison population,” she said. “That has been my goal all along.”

Anne facilitated several semesters of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program as a professor. The program brings college students into prisons to learn side-by-side with incarcerated people and hold discussions with them. Those classes were particularly meaningful for Anne, as they led many students to get to set aside biases and change their minds in favor of criminal justice reform.

Born and raised in Plymouth, Mich., she holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in criminal justice and criminology from Eastern Michigan University. As an undergraduate intern, she worked in Washtenaw County’s Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative office, where she developed a passion for criminal justice reform. She earned a Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice from Old Dominion University in Virginia.

Anne lives in Hartland.

Barbara Wieland, Communications Specialist

Wieland joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2018. She is responsible for the organization’s daily communication activities and developing strategies to effectively communicate with stakeholders, partner groups and the wider community.

“Communities are safest when all who live in them have an equal share of justice,” Wieland said. “Justice can’t fully exist when people’s transformations go unrecognized and their opportunities for redemption are denied.”

Before joining Safe & Just Michigan, Wieland spent more than 20 years in communications, including 14 years as a print journalist and more than six years as a writer for the Michigan legislature. She is also a limited license professional counselor who worked with survivors of sexual assault at the Listening Ear in Lansing, where she was a board member for five years.

Wieland holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree from Central Michigan University.

She lives in her hometown of Lansing.

Photo Credit
Khalid Ibrahim
Eat Pomegranate Photography

Photo Credit
Khalid Ibrahim
Eat Pomegranate Photography

Dena Anderson, Membership Services Specialist

Anderson joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2003 and assists with the research used to educate lawmakers, stakeholders, and the media about issues related to public safety and justice. She also is responsible for the organization’s member services and maintains contact with incarcerated people in Michigan.

“Men and women across Michigan have powerful and sometimes heartbreaking stories about their experience with the criminal system,” says Anderson.  “Their stories deserve to be told.”

Prior to serving as research assistant, Anderson worked as an English teacher, and as executive secretary to the president of the Lansing Urban League.  She has also volunteered inside Michigan’s prison system in programs that help incarcerated people rethink their lives and their futures.

She was a founding volunteer for the Lansing Council Against Domestic Assault and has worked on the staffs of a variety of Michigan lawmakers.

She is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati (Mount St. Joseph University).

Anderson lives in Lansing.

John S. Cooper, Executive Director

John S. Cooper is the executive director of Safe & Just Michigan, and is responsible for the organization’s strategic vision and direction. He joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2017 as policy director after serving as a criminal justice policy advisor to State Representative David LaGrand (D – 75th, Grand Rapids).

“We are working to strengthen communities through smart criminal justice reforms,” says Cooper. “Lansing’s political landscape is always changing, but we have a compelling message, and the work couldn’t be more worth the effort.”

Cooper’s research and advocacy is focused on Michigan’s adult criminal legal system, with an emphasis on strategies to reduce Michigan’s prison and jail populations, remove barriers to successful reentry, and shift resources into programs and services that promote public safety and health.

During his tenure at Safe & Just Michigan, Cooper has led several successful legislative campaigns to reform Michigan’s criminal legal system, including the campaign to enact “objective parole,” 2018 PA 339, and the Michigan “Clean Slate” Campaign, 2020 PA 187-193.

Before he joined Rep. LaGrand’s office, Cooper spent seven years as a litigator in the Washington, D.C. office of Latham & Watkins LLP.  He also served as a law clerk to Hon. Boyce F. Martin, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

Cooper obtained his juris doctorate from the University of Virginia School of Law after graduating with honors from Calvin College.

He lives in his hometown of Grand Rapids.

Photo Credit
Khalid Ibrahim
Eat Pomegranate Photography

Photo Credit
Khalid Ibrahim
Eat Pomegranate Photography

Josh Hoe, Policy Analyst 

Josh joined the staff of Safe & Just Michigan in 2019 as our policy analyst, bringing with him 20 years of experience in debate, rhetoric and strategic planning. In 2018 his strategic policy and communications work supported the passage of the federal First Step Act.

“I like seeing results,” Josh said. “It’s all about seeing people get out of prison, or getting the chance to work after prison, getting housing or finding community. It’s all about seeing people become re-integrated as our neighbors. That’s what motivates me.”

He also hosts the podcast “Decarceration Nation” that explores a wide range of criminal justice issues with national and state-based experts. Josh’s drive to reform the criminal justice system stems from his own experience with it.

Josh also has 20 years of experience as a coach of debate teams, where he developed skills in research, building arguments and rhetoric and developing strategy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Central Oklahoma.

Josh lives in Lansing.

Justin Counts, Fund Development Fellow

Justin joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2021 as a development fellow. A Jackson resident, he works for the Jackson Housing Commission, where he co-created the Feed Thy Neighbor program at Reed Manor. The program fosters a sense of community and combats loneliness while working to end hunger at the same time. Looking ahead, he wants to start a financial literacy program for youth so that young people can avoid some of the pitfalls he encountered.

Sentenced to probation on a marijuana offense in 2006, Justin struggled to meet the financial demands related to fines, fees and monitoring. His inability to pay eventually led to a 2.5-year prison sentence. While incarcerated, he decided to make changes to his life, including becoming a better father and husband, and becoming more empathetic towards others.

“Be slow to judge,” Justin said. “Understand life can go a lot of different ways. Sometimes, the way your life goes isn’t completely under your own control.”

Justin lives in Jackson.

Photo Credit
Barbara Wieland
Safe & Just Michigan

Photo Credit
Khalid Ibrahim
Eat Pomegranate Photography

Kate McCracken, Deputy Director 

McCracken joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2017. She leads and manages all daily operations, and heads key programs and projects. Previously she served as SJM’s associate director of communications and community engagement.

“Justice and safety each come from a place of healing and accountability,” says McCracken. “Redemption and transformation are also possible. They are, each, goals worth pursuing – and vigorously.”

A Michigan native McCracken returned home after residing for a decade on the West Coast, primarily in San Francisco. Prior to serving as the associate director of communications and community engagement, McCracken worked as deputy director in the Office of Violence Prevention Services for former San Francisco Mayor, the late Edwin M. Lee. In that role, she implemented the Mayor’s violence prevention initiative, working daily with crime survivors and others affected by the criminal justice system.

She previously served as the director of policy and development at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization working to reduce the nation’s reliance on incarceration.

She is a graduate of Humboldt State University with a graduate degree from Portland State University.

McCracken is a resident of her hometown of Mount Pleasant.

Kamau Sandiford, Clean Slate Program Manager

Kamau joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2021 as a Clean Slate program manager. He brings six years of experience as an expungement attorney with him at the Cooley Law School’s Access to Justice Clinic in Grand Rapids. While there, he saw Michigan’s expungement law expand from being very restrictive to one of the most expansive laws in the country — and the first in the nation to offer the automatic expungement of felonies.

“I saw people convicted of crimes that I didn’t even know were crimes,” Kamau said. “The impact those convictions would have on their day-to-day life was incredible. They were not able to get the housing that they want or the job that they’re seeking, even though they have a conviction that is 20 years old.”

Kamau earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Grand Valley State University in 2010 and graduated with a law degree from Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids in 2014. He was the staff attorney for the Access to Justice Clinic for six years. He has also volunteered with the Black and Brown Cannabis Guild at their expungement fairs.

He lives in West Michigan.

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

Rick Speck, Community Engagement Specialist

Speck joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2020 and serves as our community engagement specialist.

“I believe in the work that Safe & Just Michigan is doing — and the way we are doing it — by bringing system-impacted people to the table to be partners in it,” Speck said.

Before joining Safe & Just Michigan, Speck worked as an organizer for ACLU of Michigan’s Smart Justice program, a part of ACLU’s national effort to reduce prison populations by 50 percent. Before that, he was the founder and executive director of LUCK Inc., an organization helping people released from prison re-establish themselves and thrive in their communities.

Speck attended Wayne County Community College and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

He lives in Warren.

Ronnie Waters, Community Engagement Specialist

Waters  joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2021 as a community engagement specialist, bringing with him decades of organizing experience both inside and outside prison. A former juvenile lifer, Ronnie worked with the ACLU’s juvenile justice program while incarcerated. After he was released in 2020, he registered voters and educated justice-impacted people about their voting rights.

“After many decades, I’m finally getting my second chance at life.  However, I left a lot of good people behind, men and women who have paid their debt to society and are totally transformed human beings. We have to bring them home too.”

He is particularly interested in changing public opinion about life and long sentences, and being more open to granting second chances to people who have demonstrated they have earned them.

Waters holds an associate degree in arts and sciences and has done coursework towards a bachelor’s degree at Central Michigan University.

He lives in the Detroit area.

Photo Credit
Barbara Wieland
Safe & Just Michigan

Photo Credit
Barbara Wieland
Safe & Just Michigan

Tamir Bell, Fund Development Fellow

Tamir joined Safe & Just Michigan in 2021 as a development fellow. Tamir returned home from prison on Feb. 25, 2020, approximately two weeks before the state shut down because of COVID-19. Tamir overcame barriers he faced because of his past and the pandemic to start a business, enroll in college and work as a navigator for Michigan Liberation. He wants to add fundraising and grant writing to his growing list of skills.

“Fundraising and grant writing would be beneficial to my community — the community of Detroit and the community of returning citizens,” Tamir said.

Tamir says his supportive family allowed him to accomplish much of what he has done so far, and he wants to pay that forward to others. His goals include assisting others with their transition home and starting a community center for youth offering mental health help, recreation, athletics and other programs to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Tamir is pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

He lives in West Detroit.

Veronica French, Office Manager

Veronica French joined the Safe & Just Michigan team as our office manager in 2019. She is responsible for making sure things run smoothly inside our office and providing support to the events we sponsor around the state.

“I look forward to being at an organization that is working to find ways to better the community and better people’s lives,” Veronica said. “I want to help people see better options to the way things are now.”

A Howell native, Veronica worked at the MSU Museum, where she had worked on collections, exhibits and administration. She soon discovered her preference was working with people — not museum objects. Her work on the museum’s “Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak” exhibit, reflecting on the crisis of sexual violence centered on the MSU campus in recent years and curated by the survivors and their allies, was particularly meaningful.

That experience made her want to work more deeply on social justice issues and led her to Safe & Just Michigan. She wants to see her home state become a place where survivors of crime and justice-involved people alike live in safer, stronger communities.

She is a graduate of Michigan State University.

Veronica lives in Lansing.

Photo Credit
Khalid Ibrahim
Eat Pomegranate Photography

Our Volunteers

Our work is advanced through a partnership of professional staff, volunteers and other community supporters. Volunteers and interns play a fundamental role in our policy work and outreach efforts.

Interested in volunteering or interning with Safe & Just Michigan? Contact us at to learn more.

Employment Opportunities

Research Specialist Position Description

The research specialist is SJM’s dedicated researcher, and in that role gathers and analyzes the organization’s criminal justice data. As such, the research specialist plays an important role in policy development, communications, and legislative advocacy. Read the full position description to learn how to apply.

Download>> Research Specialist Job Description 2021

Last updated: Tuesday, November 23, 2021