County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council starts work

At the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s inaugural meeting, Jim Flory laid out the tasks ahead for the body.

“I look at this as a long-term commitment for this council to continually review the Douglas County criminal justice system,” the Douglas County Commission chairman said. “That’s the long-term objective. We have some things that are pending we think this council’s scrutiny will help us with right now.”

Those, of course, are the creation of the mental health court, building of a mental health crisis center and the remodeling and expansion of the Douglas County Jail. The resolution the County Commission approved last month creating the coordinating council charged it to review the county’s criminal justice system and those of its partner agencies in respect to the County Commission’s ongoing appraisal of the need to expand the Douglas County Jail, construct a mental health crisis intervention center, and create a mental health court.

Before the 14 voting members on the Coordinating Council could get to that task, they had to attend to the formative steps of electing leaders and approving bylaws. Flory wanted to move forward with the former so that he could step back from the role as chair the group, a move he said was essential if the Coordinating Council was to be perceived as independent of the County Commission. He was briefly successful in that goal Tuesday when Coordinating Council members unanimously approved his nomination of Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson as chairman and Susan Hadl as vice chair.

“I think it is critical we have someone in the chair role who has contact with all aspects of what this council is looking at,” Flory said. “After giving that some thought, I think the one person on this board who fits that role is Charles.”

The leadership election was put on hold, however, when Coordinating Council members agreed it would be appropriate to approve the group’s bylaws before electing officers. Both of those tasks will be done at the group’s next meeting on April 26.

Tentatively added to the bylaws for approval at the next meeting was having at least two-thirds of attending members present at meetings and a measure establishing a two-year term of office for the president and — to ensure continuity of leadership — an initial one-year term for vice president, which would become two years thereafter.

Generating more comment was the suggestion that a direction in the bylaws requiring the Coordinating Council identify potential gaps or deficiencies in the criminal justice system be modified. The additional language proposed would have it examine why there is a high representation of people of color involved with the county’s criminal justice system and incarcerated in the jail. Although it was agreed that this was an appropriate task for the council, some members wondered if the language should be broader to include all those of low economic status, who account for an even larger percentage of the jail’s population.

It was agreed Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug would work on the wording of those three items and share them with members via email before the next meeting.

There were a number of things Flory said he wasn’t able to address in the 90-minute meeting that he hoped the Coordinating Council would consider at its next meeting. The first was hiring staff members to facilitate meetings, share and organize data and guide communications among members. Another unaddressed issue was the possible scheduling of a retreat for an in-depth review of the issues before the body.

The Coordinating Council’s first meeting came five days after members of Justice Matters voted to recommend that the county ensure that safe alternatives to incarceration would be considered before a jail expansion plan is brought before the voters.

Ben MacConnell, Justice Matters lead organizer, said 92 percent of the 425 members in attendance at the March 31 meeting voted in favor of that position.

Flory noted the county and its stakeholders have been exploring issues involved with the county criminal justice system for nearly two years. The information collected from that effort would be presented to the Coordinating Council for review. He said he saw no conflict between Justice Matters’ position and the County Commission’s charge to the Coordinating Council.

“If the concept is a complete thorough two-year study before we move forward, then no I don’t think we would be well advised to do that,” he said. “This council is studying and going to emphasis the very projects we are talking about (the crisis center, jail modifications and expansion and mental health court). It is to verify we are moving in the right direction, what modifications we might need to make or if we’ve missed something.”

One goal for the next meeting is that subcommittees, which could include members outside the Coordinating Council, be established to study and review the jail, crisis center and mental health intervention center proposals, Flory said.

The County Commission has linked modifications and expansion of the jail with building a crisis intervention center and creating a mental health court. Although nothing has been approved, the county has received plans from Treanor Architects for a $30 million expansion and remodeling of the jail, and the firm is working on plans for a crisis intervention center that would be built on West Second Street north of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, 200 Maine St.