Race should be ‘fundamental’ issue of new criminal justice council, author of suggested bylaw says

Douglas County Jail

The author of a suggested addition to the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s proposed bylaws said she didn’t advocate forcefully enough for the language she wanted about racial disparity.

As one of the first orders of business at the April 5 initial meeting of the Coordinating Council, the Rev. Edith Guffey, one of 14 voting members on the council, submitted an article to the Coordinating Council’s bylaws that would have the group examine why there is a high representation of people of color in the county’s criminal justice system and incarcerated in the Douglas County Jail.

Douglas County Commission Chairman Jim Flory, who is heading Coordinating Council meetings until the election of officers, presented Guffey’s proposed change with the observation it was an appropriate task for the council.

Like Flory, members of the Coordinating Council found appropriate the exploration of racial disparity in the county criminal justice system and jail. During the discussion that followed, however, it was suggested the language should be broader and address the unrepresentative number of low-income individuals in the county jail and before courts.

When no bylaw language was approved at the meeting, Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said he would attempt to create a draft of the bylaw from members’ discussion.

“I didn’t push perhaps as hard as I felt, and agreed to allow other things to be put in not about race,” Guffey said Tuesday. “I think the issue of race is paramount.”

Guffey is not alone. After reading a Lawrence Journal-World account of the first meeting, Ursula Minor, president of the Lawrence NAACP chapter, wrote a letter to the Douglas County Commission stating the proposed changes to Guffey’s language demonstrated a need for a representative from the NAACP or similar organization on the Coordinating Council.

The jail’s percentage of black inmates is far higher than the 4.8 percent of the county’s black population, which makes the issue central to the Coordinating Council’s mission, Minor said Tuesday. She noted other Coordinating Council members agreed with Guffey that investigating that disparity was appropriate despite wanting to make the language broader.

“I would believe if they were going to have that discussion, there should be an organization that deals with race issues involved,” Minor said. “Hopefully, we will be approached by them and have a discussion about what we can work out.”

Guffey, meanwhile, said she agreed with the NAACP’s position that racial disparities was a key issue.

“If adding to (the proposed language) detracts from the fundamental issue, I understand their concern about that,” she said.

She would continue to voice concerns about the unequal representation of people of color in the county’s criminal justice system and jail population and hoped all members would join her in working to address the issues, Guffey said.

“I have high hopes and expectations for the council,” she said. “If it is to have credibility throughout the community, these questions have to be addressed.”

Flory said Weinaug was in touch with Guffey about the proposed bylaw language. He did not want to comment on the bylaw language because that would be an issue the Coordinating Council’s membership would decide, he said.

Any expansion of the Coordinating Council would require action from the Douglas County Commission, which established its membership in an ordinance creating the body. Flory also declined to comment on the possibility membership would be revisited but did say he thought the council “had good representation now.”

The Coordinating Council would reach out to the community for people to serve on subcommittees charged with investigating and reporting on specific issues, Flory said. Those would involve members of a wide range of community groups and organizations, he said.

The NAACP would welcome participation on subcommittees, but that did not diminish the need to include the NAACP or similar group on the Coordinating Council, Minor said.

“The council drives the subcommittees,” she said. “Organizations dealing with race would be very helpful on the council.”?

The next meeting of the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council will be April 26 in the County Commission meeting room. The meeting time has not yet been set. Meetings of the Coordinating Council are open to the public.