‘Knowledge is power’: Justice Matters urges community to read and share jail study, engage with community leaders on reform

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Members of the community listen to a presentation about a recent study of bookings into the Douglas County Jail from faith-based advocacy group Justice Matters Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.

Faith-based advocacy group Justice Matters encouraged people to engage with local leaders and contribute to a recently-established Community Bail Fund at a community meeting Monday, strategies intended as a response to a recent study of bookings into the Douglas County Jail.

The study, first initiated as a result of a push from Justice Matters back in 2020, was prepared by the Brooklyn-based criminal justice reform nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. It examined bookings into the jail over the past five years and found, in part, that a majority of bookings were for minor, nonviolent charges, and that there were also racial disparities suggesting law enforcement officers are more frequently arresting Black people relative to the general population.

Details about those two findings were among the points that members of Justice Matters shared Monday. Specifically, that included statistics like a “failure to appear” accounting for 21% of total jail admissions despite it being a low-level offense — and actually just administrative in nature, which District Attorney Suzanne Valdez clarified to Douglas County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council when it was presented with the study last month.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Carolyn Johnson, a member of Justice Matters’ jail alternatives committee, gives an overview of a recent study of bookings at the Douglas County Jail Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.

But folks involved with the group also urged attendees to take action after the meeting. Deb Engstrom, a co-chair of Justice Matters’ jail alternatives committee, said those actions should start with reading and sharing the full Vera Institute report, which is available on Douglas County’s website.

“Talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors, your faith community, any organizations you belong to, and encourage them to become knowledgable,” Engstrom said. “Because knowledge is power, and that’s what this is all about.”

Engstrom also encouraged folks to engage with county leaders in a couple of ways.

One of those was to share thoughts and comments with the CJCC, the advisory body that was briefed on the study when it was first released at the end of 2022. The CJCC is set to spend more time discussing the study at its next meeting, which is slated for Tuesday, Feb. 14.

The other was to come to Justice Matters’ annual action assembly, a forum where the group calls on local leaders in attendance to commit to take specific action on community issues ranging from homelessness to criminal justice reform. That event is slated for Sunday, May 7.

Kirsten Kuhn, another co-chair of Justice Matters’ jail alternatives committee, detailed another action item — contributing to the Douglas County Community Bail Fund, a nonprofit Kuhn founded herself last November. The fund was established to raise money for folks who are in jail because they can’t afford to pay their bond amounts. For now, Kuhn said it’s only supporting Lawrence Municipal Court cases since it’s a new agency.

Justice Matters representatives also shared and advocated for a number of recommendations the Vera Institute shared in its report. Some of those recommendations included implementing alternatives to traditional arrests like sending civilian response teams in appropriate situations, reviewing local laws that set arrest requirements for certain offense, prioritizing mental health care and substance abuse treatment and making sure nobody is in jail because they can’t afford to pay fines or bail charges.


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