Your Turn: Local criminal justice system deserves review

To the credit of many, much thought has been given to creating a jail and a mental health crisis center that we can be proud of. But a system of fairness is more complex than individual buildings. It is also important to take the time to build a local criminal justice system that we can be proud of, a system that is built on safety, prevention, restoration, and redemption.

Justice Matters has followed the discussion around our jail expansion closely, because, as we began building public support for a mental health crisis center over a year ago, the community was informed that the two (jail expansion/crisis center) will go before the voters as one ballot item; rather than allowing the two projects to be evaluated on their individual merits. While we support the care needed for those currently incarcerated, we are also aware of the concerns with mass incarceration and the detrimental impact it has on individuals and families in our community. Our hope is that the needs of individuals in the jail can be effectively met, while efforts are made to reduce the number of people being incarcerated.

Our county commissioners have formed a new group of community stakeholders known as the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. They have been charged with reviewing and reforming our local criminal system in Douglas County. With the help of groups that focus on criminal justice reform, cities on the verge of jail expansion have chosen alternatives and with great results. Dozens of cities have safely reduced their jail populations by investing in system-wide practices that lower recidivism and allow people to retain employment, while also improving public safety (e.g., mental health treatment, alcohol/drug treatment options, improved bail schedules, restorative justice courts, use of ankle bracelets in lieu of detention, reduced delays for trial, etc.).

At our Nehemiah Action Assembly at the Lied Center on Wednesday, we will call on officials to seek safe and effective alternatives to incarceration before jail expansion is brought before the public for a vote. We are also asking the county commissioners to give the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council professional leadership, from an independent consulting group, that has expertise and a track record of bringing people together to implement systemic alternatives, and to afford the council the time it needs to achieve this goal. By giving this process the time it requires, people will be able to vote knowing that our community has chosen to support a pathway of effective alternatives to incarceration and that we have created a local criminal system that we can be proud of.