As Douglas County leaders weigh possibly changing or eliminating the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s racial and ethnic disparities work group, some members of the council want the work to get more attention.
The CJCC has been reorganizing as part of a new strategic plan, and Katy Fitzgerald, the county’s criminal justice coordinator, has been focused on creating new work groups. That could include work groups focused on failures to appear in court, for instance, and a group to review the jail population and see what’s driving jail bookings.
Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said during Tuesday’s CJCC meeting that she and Fitzgerald had considered a changeup for the Racial and Ethnic Disparities for Justice Involved work group: “embedding” an equity impact adviser into each of the other work groups. Those advisers would then meet, separate from the work groups, to share what they’ve been learning.
As multiple studies have revealed, people of color have faced disparate experiences and outcomes in the local criminal legal system.
• Black people are booked into the Douglas County jail at almost four times the rate of white people, and the incarceration rate of Black people in Douglas County is 6.5 times the rate of white people, according to a June 2022 report;
• A law enforcement contact study, presented in August 2022, confirmed that Black drivers are 2.73 times more likely to get stopped than white drivers in Douglas County, and drivers of color are 1.72 times more likely to be searched; and
• Almost one out of every three Black men ages 25-54 living in Douglas County were booked into the jail between 2017 and 2021, according to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice. Among Douglas County residents in the same age group, 11.4% of Black women, about one in six Latino men (16.2%), and 7.9% of Native American women were booked into the jail during that time frame.
CJCC member Mariel Ferreiro said she thinks each work group needs to have achievable and measurable goals tied to equity and inclusion, and rather than having somebody there “just to be there,” advisers could provide oversight for those goals and see how things could be improved within each work group.
Pam Weigand, CJCC chair, said the county would continue to monitor race and ethnicity data in reviewing programs that are alternatives to incarceration.
“As we review each alternative every year, we look at that data,” Weigand said. “So that’s always forefront for us, looking at that as we serve the groups that we serve to make sure that we’re not doing anything with any disparity.”
Ferreiro said the data is helpful to see disparities and where the community currently stands, but there are still a lot of socioeconomic barriers in people’s way, and if the disparities and trends continue, “it’s that next step that we need to figure out.”
CJCC member Chuck Epp said he thinks that since he joined the CJCC a few months after it first launched in 2016, there has been a lot of progress addressing one of the council’s major goals: behavioral and mental health issues. The county hired a coordinator for behavioral health projects — Bob Tryanski — in 2017, and he “really deepened our understanding of the questions and deepened our sense of what kinds of solutions might be appropriate,” Epp said.
He said he thinks the CJCC ought to take some lessons from that experience for the racial and ethnic disparities question, which is “the second major priority of the of the CJCC, but we don’t really have a staffer assigned specifically to it.”
“We have a work group composed mostly of volunteers, and we’ve made some progress on gathering statistics in that area,” Epp said. “But … we’ve lacked some focus about where we’re going and what we’re doing. And in part, I think it is just a reflection of — this is sort of a second priority and not a top priority for the CJCC.”
Epp said he thinks it’s essential for the CJCC to keep the work group, at a bare minimum, to keep attention focused on the issue.
Plinsky said there hasn’t been a lot of representation from CJCC members on that work group.
“To me, it’s one of those things that if it’s important to us, we should show up — and I’m looking at this table,” Plinsky said to the CJCC members present at the county courthouse for the meeting. “So … I want to be really clear as to its purpose and the work ahead of it if we’re going to keep that group going.”
Plinsky noted that Tryanski’s position and work weren’t really outgrowths of the CJCC, but rather results of a number of things, including voters approving tax increases specifically for behavioral health initiatives. And Tryanski’s work is not limited to criminal justice issues, she said.
Plinsky said she didn’t currently have the resources to hire someone dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion work.
“When I’ve been asked this question as the county administrator, I’ve resisted the notion of hiring a specific staff person for diversity, equity and inclusion, because I think it’s everyone’s job,” Plinsky said. “And so I don’t really want to just give it to one person and say it’s their job to be in charge of those issues.”
Douglas County Commissioner and CJCC member Shannon Reid suggested that maybe the work group could stay intact but “be a little bit refreshed and refocused” on helping to identify what some of the other work groups’ goals around racial and ethnic disparities should be, “and then supporting the other work groups in moving forward on some tangible progress towards eliminating those disparities.”
Matt Cravens, senior data analyst, suggested the work group resume the CJCC’s earlier work looking at disparities at each decision point in the legal process, from arrests to charges, pretrial, plea bargaining, sentencing, and so on.
CJCC members agreed to evaluate which work groups they think they should serve on and circle back to the racial and ethnic disparities work group conversation during their May meeting.
Failures to appear; night court
Another persistent problem the CJCC discussed Tuesday is defendants’ failures to appear in court. Judges often issue warrants for defendants’ arrests as a result of them missing court, which exacerbates problems and strains resources. Fitzgerald shared some ideas of how work groups could approach that issue, focusing on getting information to defendants and considering how courts respond to nonappearances.
“What is the threshold that an order for arrest is maybe issued by a judge? Fitzgerald said. “When is it appropriate for a notice to appear rather than an order for arrest?”
Lawrence City Commissioner and CJCC member Brad Finkeldei also suggested looking at evening court sessions. He said it was easier for some people to make it to court in the evenings when he was the Baldwin City Prosecutor.
“We would love to be able to staff a night court, but we have to have the courts willing to do it,” Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez said. “But certainly, we would be willing to do that as well, just to have flexibility for people to get their business done.”
Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria said he personally has thought night court has been a good idea for a long time, “but there’s a lot of logistical and staffing issues that go into it. I’m happy to hear the discussion.”
Another potential issue, McCabria said, was that some judges might not be comfortable with other judges handling a docket without knowing the history of a case, or with an administrative process to handle a failure to appear warrant.
The CJCC will meet next on Tuesday, May 9. Meetings run from 11 a.m. to 12:30 and lately have been held in a hybrid format, in person at the Douglas County Courthouse and via Zoom.
Find out what’s really going on in your town. Read The Lawrence Times.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters
Lawrence advocacy group Justice Matters invites community members to an educational meeting about a study that highlighted stark racial disparities in incarceration and found that most bookings into the Douglas County jail are for minor, nonviolent charges, among other conclusions.
Researchers have finished a draft report from a long-running law enforcement contact study, which has confirmed that Black drivers are 2.73 times more likely to get stopped than white drivers in Douglas County, and drivers of color are 1.72 times more likely to be searched.