Justice Matters says 2nd donor willing to help with comprehensive criminal justice study

photo by: Nick Krug

Members of Proposition 1 opposition group Justice Matters gather for a prayer outside the Douglas County Jail on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. From left, the members are Ben MacConnell, Joanna Harader and Rose Schmidt.

A second donor has stepped up to pledge money to help the county pay for a comprehensive study of its criminal justice system, an officer for the faith-based activist group Justice Matters said.

Brent Hoffman, Justice Matters treasurer, said a donor who wishes to remain anonymous has agreed to contribute $10,000 for a comprehensive study of all aspects of the criminal justice system from police stops on the street to District Court sentencing. The study’s goal would be to identify ways to reduce the county’s incarceration rate.

The new pledge increases to $40,000 the amount of private money unnamed donors have told Justice Matters they will make available for the study. On Aug. 1, Hoffman told the Douglas County Commission that an anonymous donor was making $30,000 available for the study.

Both offers come with the stipulation that the county contract with one of three firms the MacArthur Foundation used when it provided $100 million in grants to local jurisdictions to study means of reducing their incarceration rates, Hoffman said. The groups are the Justice Management Institute, Vera Institute of Justice and Justice System Partners.

When Hoffman presented information on the first donation, county commissions said that the proposal would have to be considered by the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, a 15-member panel that includes representatives from law enforcement agencies, the district and municipal courts, District Attorney’s Office, the county defense bar, the Lawrence City Commission and members of the community. Commissioner Mike Gaughan, who chairs the CJCC, said the CJCC’s blessing was essential because many of its members would be asked to cooperate in the study by sharing information and data.

Robert Bieniecki, the county criminal justice coordinator, said the CJCC will next meet at a Sept. 14 retreat. The retreat would be an appropriate place to consider the comprehensive review Justice Matters is requesting, he said. County commissioners also are scheduled to discuss the latest offer at their 4 p.m. meeting on Wednesday, according to a recent update to the commission’s agenda.

Bieniecki added, however, that the cost wasn’t the reason the county hasn’t pursued a comprehensive study, which he estimated would cost from $90,000 to $120,000.

“Quite honestly, it’s not about the money, but the need,” he said. “The County Commission has funded studies the last two years and continues to do more. Money is not the issue.”

Bieniecki and Gaughan are concerned adding another study at this time might overburden law enforcement agencies and departments with requests for statistical information.

The National Association of Counties is now working with the county on a study of how to further reduce the county jail’s population of inmates with mental illness, Gaughan said. In addition, this year the county is looking to start the long-anticipated study of police contacts with people of color, he said. That study will be done in partnership with the cities of Lawrence, Baldwin City and Eudora, and the University of Kansas.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said a three-person academic team led by Jack McDevitt, the director of Race and Justice at Northeastern University of Boston, will conduct the two-year study. The county and city of Lawrence will both provide $84,000 for the study, while Eudora will provide about $2,800, Baldwin City $2,200 and KU $1,600, he said.

The ongoing National Association of Counties study and the coming racial-contact study were too narrow in scope, Hoffman said. He questioned whether they would develop the kind of recommendations that would lead to a significant reduction in the jail’s population.

Gaughan and County Commissioner Michelle Derusseau said they wouldn’t support contracting the Vera Institute to conduct a comprehensive study should commissioners decide to conduct one. They said the ability of the Vera Institute to conduct an independent study was compromised from its involvement last spring in Proposition 1. In May, voters rejected the ballot question that would have provided $44 million to expand the Douglas County Jail.

At the invitation of Justice Matters, Jasmine Heiss, director of outreach for the Vera Institute’s In Our Backyards initiative, made an April visit to Lawrence that included two public presentations and a tour of the county jail. At an event Justice Matters hosted, Heiss tied the jail expansion to the national trend of mass incarceration and said the $44 million spent on the jail expansion could be used more effectively on programs that would keep people out of jail, such as employment training and mental health and substance abuse programs.

Hoffman said Heiss’ comments didn’t constitute a position on Proposition 1 and said neither she nor the Vera Institute took a stance on the ballot question. But he added such a perception by county officials shouldn’t stop a comprehensive study from going forward.

“There are three options,” he said. “If the point is we should look at the entire criminal justice system comprehensively, bring in one of the other institutes.”


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