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On Monday, December 3, The Madison Center’s Engagement Fellow, Shelby Taraba attended the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Community Criminal Justice Board Meeting. The following is a write-up of her observations from the CCJB meeting.

The core of the CCJB meeting centered on continued discussion of how to address over-incarceration and high recidivism rates in Harrisonburg and Rockingham. Reformers have been calling for a Community Justice Planner, but there continues to be tension and disagreement with law enforcement on whether such a position would address the problems. Several members of the community, including a representative from the Valley Justice Coalition and Faith in Action’s President Jennifer Davis Sensenig used the public commenting period to reiterate their request for a well-qualified Community Justice Planner hired in an open selection process. In addition, Davis Sensenig reiterated the other policy proposals of Faith in Action’s campaign this year, including: eliminating the financial burden of the one dollar-per-day fee currently paid by families of inmates at our local jail and the three dollar charge for local inmates transferred to the Middle River Regional Jail; and establishing protocols for all juvenile justice cases to be screened for a restorative justice process.

Stephen Thomas from the Northeast Neighborhood Association mentioned that Harrisonburg has operated 185 years without the dollar-a-day keep fee. He argued that if the jail has an annual budget of $10 million, the revenue from the keep-fee is less than 1% of that budget and between $70,000 and $125,000/yr, depending on the amount of inmates in jail and their length of stay. Thomas shared with the board that after many interviews with various inmates across Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail (RHRJ) and Middle River Regional Jail (MRRJ) and from his own experience, the proportion of inmates who have commissary money is small, which exacerbates the numbers of dollars spent by inmates on commissary, noting the majority of the population lack the monetary support necessary to increase the amount to $8,000 per week. Sheriff Hutcheson has noted that the data show $8,000 is spent on commissary each week and one dollar per day for the keep fee shouldn’t be that cumbersome for inmates and their families. Mr. Thomas closed his public comment by citing Harrisonburg’s ALICE report to argue that the keep-fee is in fact cumbersome to inmates and families.

A local pastor also reported to the board that he visited Middle River Regional Jail (MMRJ) and was told that there is better food given to prisoners and “better” temporary living conditions during inspections. CCJB chairman Kyger told the pastor to submit what he learned in writing and the board will address the speculations.

At the meeting, Ruth Jost, from the subcommittee studying alternatives to incarceration, presented to the board and submitted a formal written proposal entailing the subcommittees intentions and recommendations. Citing data provided by Sheriff Hutcheson at the request of the CCJB, Jost presented information on the rising inmate populations at Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail (RHRJ) and MRRJ:

Table 1: Historical Population Numbers

Month/year RHRJ MRRJ Total
October 2016 314 179 493
October 2017 321 204 525
October 2018 325 278 603

Jost also detailed some of the effects of inefficiencies in practices and policies and their relationship to recidivism (see Table 2) and over-incarceration. Since inmates are waiting on things, such as lab work, they are sitting in jails longer than necessary. From research we know there is a correlation between  inmates waiting longer in jail, and the increased likelihood of reoffending. To mitigate over-incarceration, Jost recommended a Community Justice Planner to oversee data collection and analysis, and diversionary programs, such as effective treatment to offenders, before, during, and after incarceration. Jost noted that the CJP position could be created with a reallocation of existing taxes, similar to the way in which Maryland has pursued justice reinvestment.

Table 2: Recidivism

RHRJ Prior Incarcerations (Total=315) MRRJ Prior Incarcerations (Total=261)
Multiple Lockups at RHRJ 257 (82%) Multiple lockups at RHRJ 236 (91%)
Prior Lockups at other facilities 25 (8%) Prior Lockups at other facilities 9 (3%)
First time in jail 33 (10%) First time in jail 16 (6%)

Jost detailed the need for a Justice planner with autonomy and who possibly reports to the city manager and county administrator. She discussed potential qualifications with emphasis on research and grant writing and developing and managing a multidimensional plan with specific benchmarks to report back.

Chairman Kyger reminded Jost and the audience that the CCJB is solely advisory and that they can only express to officials what they would like to see done. Council Member Chris Jones mentioned that a timeline is important, but rushing the board when the budget timeline is set for July won’t help the board move along, and that important considerations are benefits, salary, a description of the position, and the fine details that have yet to be ironed out. Chairman Kyger expressed appreciation for the subcommittee’s proposal and said the board would seriously consider it.

Sheriff Hutcheson updated the audience on data from RHRJ and MRRJ.  Referring back to a the public comment by Steven Thomas, Sheriff Hutcheson said there has yet to be a proposal replacing the keep-fee and that the jails need the $100,000 revenue for upkeep. Sheriff Hutcheson cited probation violations as the cause of arrest for more than one third of the jail population in September and November. Sheriff Hutcheson seemed to doubt that a Community Justice Planner or preventative programs could remedy the problems of over-incarceration given the high recidivism rates (see Table 2) and high probation violations.

Concluding the meeting, Kyger announced that this meeting was his last as Chairman, after two years serving on the board. He left urging the public that the approach of communication needs to change and that the criticism of law enforcement needs to stop as they are caregivers first and foremost, but warriors when they feel the need to protect themselves. Kyger emphasized that when we communicate with incivility and disrespect we cannot build bridges, but only walls to separate us.

The meetings for 2019 will be held on March 4th, June 3rd, September 9th, and December 2nd and will take place on the second floor of the fire rescue and safety office in the county government building on West Gay St.