2020 Primary Voters Guide: Shannon Portillo touts her criminal justice scholarship for Douglas County Commission role

photo by: Contributed photo

Shannon Portillo

Watching the Douglas County Commission in January vote to approve a plan to expand its jail as many residents voiced opposition to the project made Shannon Portillo realize she had to act.

Portillo, 35, a University of Kansas associate professor and administrator who has extensively studied criminal justice, said she chose to run for the County Commission so she can bring her background in that field to the conversation — specifically, to show expansion of the jail is not needed.

“All the research and evidence says that’s not the right thing for our community,” she said of the project. “We need to make better policy choices for our community, and we really need to think about criminal justice reform.”

Portillo is one of two Democratic candidates running for the County Commission’s 3rd District seat. The winner of the Democratic primary for the seat will face off with one of the two Republican candidates in the general election in November.

Portillo has experience specifically studying the Douglas County Jail and the local justice system. She provided research for a study on those issues that faith-based activist group Justice Matters commissioned earlier this year.The group argued that the study shows that the county should invest in long-term alternatives to incarceration rather than building more jail cells. Portillo said she agrees with that conclusion.

“We need to focus on social services in our community, and that will lower the need for jail expansion,” she said.

Portillo is also putting that knowledge to use for the state, as she is serving as co-chair for Gov. Laura Kelly’s commission focused on issues of racial equity in justice.

Focusing on community justice is a theme for Portillo’s view on governance. When dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the expected economic downturn associated with it, Portillo said she wants to make sure the commission is accountable to all county voters.

The county expects to receive about $25 million of federal aid funding for the pandemic later this year. Portillo said she specifically wants to make sure COVID-19 recovery funds are used for criminal justice and economic justice, such as providing funding for affordable housing. She also said the county may need to consider decreasing its sales taxes.

“Economic justice is going to be very important … so we can really make sure folks can recover economically throughout the community, ” she said.

Portillo said her guiding principles when dealing with land use issues would remain the same. She said she wants to make sure the County Commission is listening to residents in the community when it comes to what they want to happen with rural land use.

Portillo, who is Mexican American, said she also wants to make sure the County Commission considers more diverse leadership, which she could provide. The commissioners appoint many people to community boards and committees to work on a variety of issues throughout the county.

“Having more diverse representation on the commission will also lead to more diverse representation to boards and other appointed positions throughout the county,” she said.

Portillo is the assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs at KU’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park and an associate professor for the university’s school of public affairs and administration in Lawrence. She moved to Lawrence when she was 16 to attend KU, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a doctorate in public administration from the university.

Portillo’s first position in academia was at George Mason University, located in Fairfax, Va. She returned to Lawrence in 2013 to work for KU, earning tenure in 2015. She now lives in western Lawrence with her partner, Jevan Bremby.


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