One month into new role, criminal justice planner finds ways to affect change — even amid a pandemic

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

A reverence for comprehensive data, a belief in transformational justice over punishment and a willingness to listen to area stakeholders before taking action are all in J. Frank Sottaceti’s toolbelt as he steps into the newly-created role of Criminal Justice Planner for the city of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

Sottaceti’s first month on the job coincided with a gradual shift from business-as-usual to social distancing and a statewide stay-at-home order. Still, he met with representatives from community organizations Faith in Action, Valley Justice Coalition, Northeast Neighborhood Association and local restorative justice practitioners before COVID-19 prevented face-to-face encounters. 

“My strategy is really to not come in with any preconceived notions of what the environment is in a criminal justice arena,” Sottaceti said. His job is to gather the facts, because, “in the absence of real statistics … people fill the blanks in with their narrative.”

J. Frank Sottaceti (photo provided).

Sottaceti told The Citizen in an email that he has not slowed down since the pandemic hit, just switched to virtual meetings.

“All of the stakeholders and partners have seamlessly transitioned to alternative methods and the exchange of ideas and information has not been hindered,” he wrote.

One of the problems Sottaceti identified in his first week on the job was how the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail reports the races of its inmates: 21 percent black and 79 percent white. But under those two options, “white” includes Latinos, so “to the public, we’re really not telling them the demographics of exactly who is in jail,” Sottaceti wrote.

 Having more accurate data on inmate demographics can help administrators get grants and set up treatment programs.

So far, he’s found receptiveness to ideas like this. Sottaceti said local law enforcement, community members and city and county leadership have been “very welcoming in that, I don’t have to order a report, I can actually run a report.”

The city and county created the criminal justice planner last year, after the local governments agreed to jointly fund it. Grassroots organizations like Faith in Action have been petitioning area leaders to create and fill the role since 2017.

“Everyone’s very vocal and passionate about this,” Sottaceti said of the local community. He hopes that through addressing statistical issues, like the racial demographic reports, he can build trust in the community and work towards bigger improvements. In talking to stakeholders, Sottaceti said it’s as important to ask what they don’t want as what they do.

“Saying, ‘we don’t want another jail built’ is just as important as, ‘we’d like to see more drug treatment,’” Sottaceti wrote in the email. “A new or expanded jail is an emotional issue because you can’t build your way out of an overcrowding problem.”

However, Sottaceti has experience with low- and medium-security jails in Pennsylvania that he said could potentially be modeled here. In some, inmates with DUI charges worked Monday through Friday, and stayed in the jail over the weekend.

A move toward “transformational justice”

Sottaceti hopes to build beyond the local restorative justice program to introduce more transformational justice.

Restorative justice acts as “an effective and innovative exit before they even get in the formal justice system,” Sottaceti wrote. 

But transformational justice might be a better fit for someone with an existing criminal record, he said. That can look like assistance getting into housing, finding employment, or accessing addiction recovery services.

“You’re getting them past that point when they’re ‘reintroduced’ to society, so they don’t have a desire to do whatever drug or narcotic they’re doing, and they don’t associate with the people that got them in trouble to begin with,” he explained.

And while, according to Sottaceti, the Harrisonburg Police Department refers about 10 people per year into the restorative justice program, “there are many more who could be served.” 

“There’s so many creative things that we can look at, and the community does want to help its members,” Sottaceti said. “You can’t govern your way out of crime. It does take a community effort.”

A resume steeped in law enforcement

Sottaceti first entered law enforcement in the late ‘80s, when he joined the Pennsylvania State Police, beginning his career on criminal patrol in Chester County. He’d go on to ride with the motorcycle force in Philadelphia, teach at the police academy in Hershey and serve on the drug strike force in Pittsburgh.

He was living in Pittsburgh in 2001 when his career path changed along with national history. On the morning of September 11, he was on a plane returning from Florida. As they passed over Charleston, South Carolina, the pilot made an announcement.

“He just said we’re going to have to land immediately,” Sottaceti recalled. One plane had hit the World Trade Center – the second hit shortly after they landed. He rented a car to drive home to Pittsburgh. 

His pager went off while he was on the road. It was his sergeant, telling him to get back as soon as possible. United Airlines Flight 93 had crashed in a field in south-central Pennsylvania, near Shanksville. 

“By the afternoon I was in the Shanksville area doing evidence recovery,” Sottaceti said. The scene he encountered was surreal – they found a business card from one passenger on the roof of a nearby barn, while the beverage cart had been propelled 20 feet into the ground. 

“We did recover the red bandanas, the box cutters, the pilot’s manual … that the hijackers had. It was real,” Sottaceti said. “A lightbulb went off, and I realized this had changed the world.”

Afterwards, Sottaceti started taking classes at the University of Pittsburgh in public policy and management, with concentrations in intelligence and security studies. He joined the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence in Washington, D.C., in 2007.

By the time he left the department in 2016, Sottaceti was working as the executive director of the Office for State and Local Law Enforcement – essentially, a liaison, in which his experience with the Pennsylvania State Police came in handy. 

It was his job to connect their law enforcement to any federal resources they needed, for example, when the shooting occurred in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012.

Sottaceti moved to the Shenandoah Valley in 2016 and spent two years at Sentara working in communications at Rockingham Memorial Hospital before the criminal justice planner position was posted last fall. He said he was thrilled to see “a position within my field that gave me the chance to serve the community again.”

And he’s eager to build credibility and trust in order to serve the community. As part of that, he said he wants to hear feedback from members of the community and invited them to contact him at [email protected].

“I think I can provide the transparency,” he wrote, “and some of the common sense approaches to criminal justice that will help to make our community safer and more resilient.”

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