Coordinating Council requests membership be expanded to include race, criminal justice expert

The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council agreed Tuesday to request that an expert in the “intersection of race and the criminal justice system” be added to its membership.

“We’re going to have to talk a lot about race here,” said Edith Guffey, a member of the council that was formed by Douglas County commissioners to look at a host of justice system issues. “I think we might as well get comfortable with that conversation.”

In its second meeting since being formed in March, the council agreed to ask the Douglas County Commission to appoint an additional member who is an expert in race and criminal justice issues. Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan suggested the Lawrence NAACP chapter recommend someone for the seat to the Douglas County Commission.

Gaughan’s proposal was in response to Lawrence NAACP Chapter President Ursula Minor’s letter to the Douglas County Commission, requesting a member of the NAACP or similar organization be appointed to the Coordinating Council.

No council member opposed expansion, but there was concern about limiting the recommendation process to the NAACP and what the new person would bring to the table.

Shaye Downing, who represents the Douglas County defense bar on the council, questioned expanding the council just to make its representation more inclusive, but said she did support adding someone with expertise in issues of race as it related to the criminal justice system.

“I don’t care if they are black or white,” she said. “I think we have to be careful about how we go about looking for people. I’m uncomfortable with creating a position and saying the person is going to represent black people or Native Americans.”

A wider review of race was needed because American Indians and Hispanics were also over-represented in the county’s criminal justice system, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson and council member Susan Hadl said.

At the suggestion of Bob Tryanski, it was agreed that the NAACP and a number of other organizations would jointly make a recommendation for the expert on the “intersection of race and the criminal justice system.” The recommended member’s expertise could be academic or research-based, it was agreed.

The council also unanimously approved a bylaw change that Guffey proposed at the April 5 meeting. The change would modify existing language tasking the Coordinating Council to identify potential gaps or deficiencies in the county’s criminal justice system.

Guffey’s language specifically charged the council with the “intentional examination of factors that may be contributing to the high representation of persons of color” in the county jail and criminal justice system.

The council also resolved an issue carried over from the group’s first meeting on April 5: The election of chair and vice chair for the council.

County Commissioner Gaughan replaced Douglas County Commission Chairman Jim Flory as the County Commission’s representative on the council. Flory is not seeking re-election in November and decided it would be best for continuity to have a commissioner who could serve on the council at least two years.

Gaughan proposed that he serve as the council’s chairman its first year as it conducted the upfront work needed to establish itself. That move was approved unanimously, as was the installment of Hadl, a former Lawrence police sergeant, as vice chair.

At the council’s first meeting, Flory nominated Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson for chairman and Hadl as vice chair. Branson said Tuesday he was happy to pass the position to Gaughan because of his heavy caseload in the year ahead.

The Coordinating Council will next meet at 11 a.m. May 17 at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.