Presumed next Douglas County district attorney, sheriff say they want to work with nonprofit on criminal justice reform

photo by: Screenshot

Pictured clockwise from top left are Justice Matters members Joanna Harader and Kirsten Kuhn, presumed Douglas County District Attorney-elect Suzanne Valdez and presumed Douglas County Sheriff-elect and current Lt. Jay Armbrister during an annual meeting of Justice Matters, a local grass roots coalition, held virtually on Oct. 26, 2020.

The Democratic primary winners of Douglas County’s top law enforcement positions on Monday affirmed their commitment to work with a national nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice reform.

Suzanne Valdez, the presumed next district attorney, and Lt. Jay Armbrister, the presumed next sheriff, spoke Monday evening during an annual Community Problems Assembly hosted by Justice Matters, a local coalition of faith groups.

Over the past few years, Justice Matters leadership has been pushing for the county to undergo studies by the Vera Institute of Justice prior to expanding the Douglas County Jail to lessen overcrowding. The plan to expand the jail was approved in January, then rescinded in September after the coronavirus pandemic hit and the average daily population of the jail dropped by about 100 inmates through various efforts to release people who didn’t pose a threat to public safety.

The Vera Institute would study why and how long people are incarcerated to help get a “robust and complete picture” of what’s driving the overpopulation at the jail, as the Journal-World has reported. The biggest roadblock, sheriff’s office leaders have said, was providing the extensive amount of data needed to complete the study.

Joanna Harader and Kirsten Kuhn, of Justice Matters’ committee on jail alternatives, led a discussion on criminal justice reform during the meeting Monday, asking Valdez and Armbrister to address the issue.

Armbrister said he has “always been very open” to the Vera study. He said that there were some unique logistical characteristics to the sheriff’s office’s information system that would create some roadblocks and hurdles. But he said he thought it would work out, and it’s just going to take time.

Harader said that based on her talks with Vera staff, she thought the group had worked with a variety of information systems and that together with the sheriff’s office, they’ll be able to find a way to make it work.

Valdez said the proposed study fit well with her efforts to try to ensure there is accountability and transparency from her office, and that she would share data for the study once she is sworn in; for now, though, she does not have access to that information.

Both candidates also restated their commitment to criminal justice reforms. They’re both taking over from longtime incumbents who were first elected in 2004, as the Journal-World has reported.

“We are going to be very much focused on alternative programs,” Valdez said. “That’s something I promised in my campaign.”

Specifically, Valdez said she wanted to focus on restorative justice and robust diversion and pretrial release programs to keep people out of jail — “especially low-level, nonviolent offenders,” she said.

“We have an opportunity to stop the system in its tracks and start it all over in a new direction,” Armbrister said, noting that he and Valdez have talked about examining “every bit and piece of the system” to see if it’s working in everyone’s best interest.

Neither Valdez nor Armbrister faces an opponent in the Nov. 3 general election.

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