Faith group Justice Matters calls on local officials to address issues of homelessness, criminal justice, saying their agenda is God’s will

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Guests at Justice Matters' 2021 action assembly Monday celebrate after hearing local officials pledge to support some of the group's requested actions to fight injustice and chronic homelessness in Douglas County.

With hundreds of honking cars urging them on, several local elected officials Monday night made promises about ending homelessness, new disciplinary strategies in public schools and more leniency for people who miss court dates, among other issues.

Members of the faith-based activist group Justice Matters challenged local elected officials to commit to a variety of social justice proposals at a drive-in assembly at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. The group laid out a vision to address those issues by changing local practices that it says perpetuate mass incarceration as well as chronic homelessness in Douglas County.

As each local official pledged to make some sort of change in the different areas, many in attendance honked their car horns in celebration.

“Each person here tonight, each car here tonight, answered God’s call, God’s command and God’s will for humanity that justice will be done,” said the Rev. Eric Galbreath of Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church. “If we all go forth from tonight and continue to answer the call for justice, we can make changes Douglas County has never seen before.”

During the event, Lawrence Mayor Brad Finkeldei and Douglas County Commission Chair Shannon Portillo were asked to help eliminate homelessness in Lawrence by Jan. 1, 2023, by participating in the Built For Zero initiative. Douglas County joined the program in 2020, and Finkeldei said the City Commission planned to formally join the initiative later this month.

Built For Zero is a program that brings a community’s support groups together in a shared aim to end homelessness. It also uses collected data to help identify and secure housing resources, according to the program’s website.

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Steve Ozark, left, a member of faith-based group Justice Matters, celebrates with a large audience after Lawrence Mayor Brad Finkeldei, center, and Douglas County Commission Chair Shannon Portillo pledged support for ending chronic homelessness in Lawrence by Jan. 1, 2023.

They were also asked to create proposals to obtain federal funds to help address chronic homelessness. Both said they planned to do so.

Meanwhile, Lawrence school board members Carole Cadue-Blackwood and Kelly Jones were asked to make sure the school district uses restorative justice procedures in schools, rather than practices that are considered exclusionary, such as punishing students for misconduct by suspending them and removing them from the classroom.

Restorative practices often include focusing on discussing issues that led to misconduct, such as bullying, to find causes and solutions to the problem. That’s in contrast to measures like detention and suspension, which some believe only aggravate the issue and set students up for future disciplinary issues. The group believes that restorative practices will help disrupt what it sees as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Cadue-Blackwood said she supported the goal “wholeheartedly,” saying she thought there have been too many missed opportunities to work with youth and help divert them from a path toward prison. Jones also committed to the goal.

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez also was asked to create a policy that states her office will not prosecute instances when people fail to appear in court, which is the most common reason for arrests in Douglas County, according to jail records. She was also asked to consider ways to reduce bond amounts for individuals in jail who cannot afford to pay.

Although Valdez noted the requests could not be addressed solely by her office, as the local judges are the authority on setting bonds for arrests, she said she supported the goals. She also said her office currently does not prosecute failures to appear in court.

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez explains to a crowd during Justice Matters’ 2021 assembly Monday that she supports calls to address issues related to arrests for failure to appear in court and instances when inmates cannot bond out of jail because they cannot afford it.

Justice Matters’ calls for action come just months after it helped lead a challenge to Douglas County’s plan to expand its jail.

While county officials previously said expanding the jail was necessary to account for an inmate overpopulation issue, Justice Matters and other groups argued the county needed to consider more jail alternatives before enacting a nearly $30 million construction plan to increase the number of jail cells.

Although the County Commission approved plans to move ahead with the expansion in January 2020, the coronavirus changed the reality of the project. After the pandemic emerged, the population of inmates in the jail began to decline. The County Commission over the summer of 2020 chose to review whether the expansion project was still necessary, and it ultimately decided in the fall to scrap the project.

While Justice Matters was successful in challenging the project, Vintage Church Pastor Deacon Godsey said the group was focused on doing more to address what it believes to be injustice in the community.

“At Justice Matters, we believe words are good but intentional actions are better,” Godsey said. “At Justice Matters, we believe big dreams and audacious goals are better than passively accepting things as they have always been.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Lawrence school board President Kelly Jones address the audience at Justice Matters’ 2021 action assembly on Monday, May 3, 2021.

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