By Liesl Graber, contributor
Creating a community justice planner position — a major priority for activists, including the groups Valley Justice Coalition, Northeast Neighborhood Association and Faith in Action — won’t happen until July 2019 at the earliest, if it happens at all.
Members of the Community Criminal Justice Board, which advises city and county leaders on corrections policies and pretrial services, said during Monday’s board meeting that they mostly agree on the need for more data analysis of Harrisonburg’s local justice practices. The question, though, remains whether that requires creating a new salaried position.
Ruth Jost, a member of the board’s alternatives to incarceration subcommittee, presented the board with the group’s “rationale for the urgency of hiring a community justice planner” with two words: “over-incarceration.”
“We can’t afford it,” she told the board during its final quarterly meeting of 2018. “We can’t do it. We can’t keep doing it.”
Local activist groups have called for an independent salaried position for a person to focus on data analysis and developing strategies to revamp Harrisonburg and Rockingham County’s approach to criminal justice, including better use of pre-trial diversion programs and ways to help people caught up in the legal system avoid becoming repeat offenders.
But board members wouldn’t commit to whether the community justice planner role should be a separate position to report to the Harrisonburg city manager, as some activists envision, or whether those duties could be split among existing staff.
Either way, a decision won’t come until the next fiscal year, which begins in July, said board Chairman William Kyger and City Councilman Chris Jones. That’s when the board will propose the budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
“It would be irresponsible if every one of us on this board voted yes right now,” Jones said, in case something would occur before July 1 to make funding the position unfeasible.
In the meantime, Kyger cautioned against getting caught up in the title of the position.
“We should be careful in how we move forward,” he said. “How can we achieve something similar? How can we get to the same end goal?”
And that doesn’t mean some of the number crunching can’t start sooner, he said.
“We have a lot of resources. The broader idea is what we can work with,” Kyger said. “Creating a data analysis position is a beginning, a small step forward.”
Momentum for a community justice planner had been building throughout the fall with an October rally and with the issue entering the city council races. Jones, in fact, said creating the position was a key part of his platform.
Jones urged activists, such as Jost, to focus their lobbying on other local leaders.
“You already know my vote, and even then I won’t make a motion until March when we’re proposing the budget,” Jones said.
Jost, who’s also a member of Valley Justice Coaltion, said a dedicated justice planner also could apply for grants to better fund new initiatives.
Instead of searching for multiple few-year grants, Jost said, Harrisonburg should push for justice reinvestment initiatives when seeking funding for the position and in extension the justice system.
“There are people out there who want to fund jurisdictions who have done their homework,” Jost said, “and that means coming up with proper data.” Along with data analysis capabilities, the right candidate would have grant writing experience, Jost said.
The Community Criminal Justice Board is advisory only, Kyger reminded the audience of more than 30 people who filled out eight rows of chairs in the Fire and Rescue Center. “We are hopeful to convince our colleagues, but it doesn’t come down to what we think.”
Not everyone on the justice board is in favor of creating a new salaried position. For Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, creating a salaried position is too big of a leap right now.
“Why not start with a consultant?” Hutcheson said to The Citizen in a recent interview. “You’ve got to crawl before you walk.”
Hutcheson said it should be tested first before committing resources to a position.
“What if we get someone in here on contract, and then find out at the end of the year that we don’t need their services anymore, that it could have been a consultant kind of job?” he said. Instead of creating the salaried position, Hutcheson would like to see already-qualified staff working together to fill the duties of a community justice planner, and then hire a consultant to run data analysis and give suggestions for improvement.
Data already exists for Hutcheson to identify one way to address overcrowding at the jail ― tackling the problem of probation violations, which according to Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail records, account for one third of the inmates.
“That’s a big bite of the population apple,” he told The Citizen.
He said that should be a starting point.
“I don’t think a Community Justice Planner could come up with a bigger target than one-third,” he said to the board. “If you’re looking at something to spend money on, there it is.”
The Community Criminal Justice Board will meet next on March 4, 2019, in a location other than the Fire and Rescue Center, which will no longer be available because of repurposing of the room.