City, county staff continue working to define and fill new justice planner role

By Liesl Graber, contributor

Voting to fund a new justice planner position, as the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County did earlier this year, was just step one. Now, City Manager Eric Campbell, County Administrator Stephen King and their respective staffs are playing administrative catch as they make good on that promise by actually developing a job description and hiring someone to do it.

After taking a first pass at writing a job description, King sent it to Campbell for review last week.

“I expect we’ll bounce it back and forth a few times and share with others, until we reach some agreement,” King said.

Campbell said the process has been unique, requiring the cooperation of both the city and county governments – and ultimately, sign-off from both HR departments.

While there’s been no final decision on the position’s “organizational home” (i.e., a county employee partially funded by the city, or vice-versa), both King and Campbell said it will most likely fall under the county’s jurisdiction.

“Most of the criminal justice functions are on the county’s side,” Campbell said, “so it seems like a natural fit. [But] nothing is written in stone, yet.”

New position the result of sustained public pressure

Several community groups ? including the Valley Justice Coalition, Northeast Neighborhood Association and Faith in Action ? spent months lobbying the city and county to hire a justice planner, who, they believe, can help the city and county reduce the local incarceration rate by studying trends and advising local decision-makers.

As a result, both the city and county approved $40,000 this spring in their budgets for fiscal year 2020, which began this July 1. At the time, both King and Campbell said while the money would be available as of that date, creating and filling the position wouldn’t occur right away.

In drafting the job description, the two administrators have been studying that of Neal Goodloe, a criminal justice planner for the Charlottesville-based Thomas Jefferson Area Community Criminal Justice Board.

Speaking at a local Community Criminal Justice Board (CCJB) meeting last October, Goodloe his role as that of a “truth seeker.” In his presentation at the meeting, Goodloe said a justice planner functions as an evidence-based researcher and an “action-oriented advocate for implementation of research-based solutions for criminal justice problems.” A justice planner, he continued, should gather and analyze data, and using their findings to guide decision-making about the local criminal justice system.

Goodloe described for the audience his mindset while filling this role: “Are the changes we implemented actually helping? And where are the data that show it?”

Campbell told The Citizen the development team is using the Thomas Jefferson Area CCJB’s “well-seasoned and mature” position as a reference point. He said he hopes the new justice planner will be seen as an asset by the local CCJB.

“The relationship [between the CCJB and justice planner] is something we’ll have to work through, to help everybody on the CCJB to see and understand how they can utilize this position,” Campbell said.

Still, some in the community have questioned the need for funding the new justice planner position. Earlier this year, local defense attorney Gene Hart told The Citizen that the community already has a justice planner in Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst. By deciding which felony charges to prosecute, Hart said, Garst has the most influence of anyone on how many people end up in jail.

“I’m not saying she’s doing a bad job. I’m not saying she’s got wrong policies,” Hart said. “What I’m telling you is, she is the one who drives [incarceration].”

Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson has also been openly skeptical of the need for a full-time justice planner, arguing that hiring a consultant would be a more cost-effective way to glean new insight into local incarceration trends. Hutcheson has also argued that because one-third or more of the people in the local jail are there for probation violations, investment in lowering that number would be more effective than hiring a justice planner to identify other priorities for reducing incarceration.

No definite timeline for hiring

Nevertheless, the hiring process is moving forward, although no deadline for filling the position has been established, Campbell said. His and King’s immediate priority is coming up with a thorough, transparent job description so candidates know exactly what they’re applying for.

Depending on the applicant pool, King said a new role is typically filled within 30 to 90 days of posting the position. At this point, he said they want to do it right rather than do it quickly. If, for example they are unsatisfied with the applications, King and Campbell will rethink the position, redraft the description, and re-advertise it.

One aspect of the final job description will be a formal title ending the continuous mix-up between “Community Justice Planner” and “Criminal Justice Planner.”

“It’s been interchangeable,” said Campbell, laughing. “But once we develop the job description, we’ll land on that official title.”

Due to an editing error, this story originally misspelled the name of Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst. It has been corrected.

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