On October 15 Harrisonburg Rockingham’s Community Criminal Justice Board (CCJB) could take a big step toward reducing incarceration and recidivism that cost us heavily in dollars and harm to families. Made up of local criminal justice agencies and community stakeholders, CCJB will consider recommending that local officials hire a community justice planner. After all, we’ve spent $20 million to buy into Middle River Regional Jail (on top of our regular $10 million annual jail budget). With our numbers escalating, we’re headed for overcrowding again.

Why should we hire a Community Justice Planner? To see, go to drug court any Thursday at 1 p.m. You’ll find a group of repeat drug offenders facing serious prison time that could cost taxpayers millions. Instead, they report weekly to a judge who is committed to getting them drug free, despite relapses. It’s grueling for them, especially since we lack affordable long term or residential drug treatment they desperately need, but successful graduates can get sentences reduced or eliminated, saving us all money and helping rebuild lives.

Why do we have a drug court today? Because last year Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst and Judge Bruce Albertson did tremendous work to submit a grant application to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, leveraging local city and county matching funds.

Or talk to our law enforcement officers who’ve had Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) in utilizing mental health interventions instead of force to defuse dangerous situations. Another grant-funded program that ultimately saves money and benefits families of troubled persons.

Criminal justice systems are staggeringly complex, with law enforcement, prosecution, incarceration, probation, all under various local, state and federal agencies. A justice planner with broad criminal justice experience can work with each, using data analysis to find their needs, then do the complex technical job of writing major grants. (Grants more than pay for the planner’s salary.)

State, federal, and private sources offer many grants to help communities reduce incarceration. They’re funding jail overcrowding solution studies, restorative justice for juveniles, assessments of reentry housing needs. Also “community service” programs with automated assignment capabilities to help people work off court costs successfully. They’ve helped over 400 police departments nationwide use non-arrest pathways to treatment, like Glouster’s “Angel Program” where addicts can self-refer by walking into a police station for help.

Our political representatives did right when they choose not to spend $60 – 80 million on a jail, locking us into costly and ineffective responses to most crime. We know we can’t build our way out of jail overcrowding but now we need to move forward expeditiously with proven alternatives. Our local Reentry Council has offered its expertise to the CCJB’s deliberations. The Valley Justice Coalition and the 26 churches with Faith in Action are urging this step. With the help of a planner to assist our community criminal justice board, we can analyze our data, confer with our criminal justice agencies, carefully plan, and implement real improvements to our criminal justice system.

I hope we do it.

Ruth Stolzfus Jost

The above was published in the Daily News-Record on 30 September 2018.