By Thea Nietfeld - "Can a Community Come Together to Create a Criminal Justice System it Can Be Proud Of?

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Can a community come together to create a criminal justice system it can be proud of? In this post, Thea Nietfeld of TALK Salina (Kansas) describes her community's efforts to do just that in her February, 2016, presentation to the League of Women Voters and Rotary Club.

Several years ago, when Saline County Sheriff Glen Kochanowski brought up the need for a new jail to the county commission, he pointed out that the current jail could house 192 prisoners and that we had 266 inmates. It costs about $50.00 per inmate per day to house a prisoner in other counties, so the county was losing money every month—a lot of money was leaving our county and going to other counties. There were also health and safety concerns, for prisoners and for jail staff. We needed to invest in a new jail with more beds.

So the county commission appointed a citizens committee which hired a consultant with experience in this area. They listened to testimony from experts and people involved in our local criminal justice system. Adjustments were made to address needs for new courtrooms, offices, and a parking garage. In August, 2014, the county commission decided to put a proposal for 1/2 cent sales tax on the ballot to raise $46.5 million to pay for the new jail/justice center.

Like many of you, I saw the slides on the overcrowded conditions and concerns for safety presented by Sheriff Kochanowski and the citizen committee chair, Wesleyan Criminology Professor John Burchill. They explained that the study had been careful and the experts thorough and that the proposed building would fix what was wrong.

This was a technical solution and the issue was framed as a
competition for the will of individual―each voter would choose yes or no.

Even though there was no anti-jail campaign to describe opposing views, like many people, I felt conflicted. Something needed to change, but was this the only answer? Online comments just before the election focused on the extreme cost and the need for prisoners to be held close to their family. Many people said they were struggling with the issue or on the fence (Salina Journal Online, October 29, 2014)

In November 2014, the proposal for the jail/justice center building was narrowly voted down, and I wonder whether, along with not wanting a tax increase, Salinans had an inkling that if we took some time and worked things through, there might be other ways to think about the “too-many-prisoners” concern.

If even some citizens wondered whether we could find more creative approaches as a community, we wanted participatory democracy because we have a capacity for civic innovation. We could do better.

Looking back, and with an updated theory about democracy, we can see that the criminal justice system is more complex than a building.

As with other "wicked" or complex problems, it will take diverse views and many kinds of resources, including a different kind of research, to address this concern:  Updated democracy theory suggests it takes exploration, understanding, and intentional management of tensions and paradoxes to deal with the complexity of today's public concerns (Martin Carcasson, Colorado State University for Public Deliberation and the Kettering Foundation)

What Salina needs is more than a building, although it may include that. These days, we might say that what we need a trustworthy, fair, safe, and affordable approach to criminal justice. With language from what some people call "adaptive leadership," we want to be involved in working through this dilemma with a big-picture and long-term view. And we wanted quality, inclusive communication throughout the process. We wanted skillful public engagement—not like what happened with the recent controversy regarding the health department—but something more like the April, 2014 school bond issue which had been worked through in advance of the positive election outcome.

In May of 2015, several months after the jail was voted down, a handful of us gathered to think about what issue was ripe for a community deliberation event in Salina: We asked ourselves where deliberation might benefit the community: What is a complex concern with many points of view that we could work through together and come to more understanding about each other and what we value?

Doing this would increase our community’s capacity to work things through together. We raised several possibilities: poverty and income inequality, racial equality, jail/court services, mental health breakdown, K-12 school system, limited fundamentalist perspective, homelessness/affordable housing, better transportation alternatives, and fair taxes among them.

We decided to talk about criminal justice—the need to do something was clear; but, as a community, we didn't know what to do.

So the handful of us talked to people at coffee shops and in offices; we tried to hear fresh voices so that there would be fresh views. The deliberation model puts equal emphasis on experiential knowledge and expert knowledge. We don't want false claims; we want the views of common citizens. Of course sometimes the view of the common citizen isn't realistic; that can be a problem.

Then we listed possible ways of thinking about our criminal justice system—a full blackboard of ways to think about it. Using the Kettering Foundation deliberation model, we clustered these 50 or so possibilities into 3 approaches:

Maintain and Increase Incarceration
Emphasize Prevention and Rehabilitation
Change the Legal System.

Greg Stephens, my civic engagement colleague in our work with the Kettering Foundation, created a Discussion Guide that beautifully depicted the possibilities raised by Salinans.

Eighty-five Salinans participated in the public deliberation event on October 7, 2015, and the discussion was lively and respectful. People met people they wouldn't have otherwise met. They understood points of view they had not heard before. They could see the moral conviction in someone sitting across the table from them who saw things differently.

We broke down a key obstacle to collaborative problem-solving by changing the question from whether to build a jail or not to the question "How should we address criminal justice issues in Salina?"

This fresh question, with possible responses to weigh, brought innovative thinking. People brought up experiences with mental illness and addiction. They were concerned with the safety of the police officer at their table.

Some questions came out of the deliberation:  Who is in jail?  How many come back and why?  Participants wanted to hear from former prisoners: What's jail like for them? What happens to them after they get out?  How does addiction relate to crime?  Mental health concerns?  Who might help us do this research? Who might help us find answers to these questions and let us know?

We wanted to know more so we could make good decisions. We were taking responsibility for working through how we want to do criminal justice.

If we had had even more capacity as facilitators and participants, our deliberation event might have taken us even further; we might have been able to recognize where our values were the same and different and to prioritize our foundational values. We might have been able to say what we definitely don't want...

Yet because of the capacity we already had, the community built on the deliberation event. We made things happen that address all three approaches:  incarceration concerns, prevention and rehabilitation, and changing the legal system.

Last December 5, 2015, the NAACP hosted a day-long discussion called "Jail—Before, During, and After." The panels talked with groups of about 20 in three different sessions. Conversations were not only lively and civil, but also built on our previous public conversations. Jim Vint addressed one of the big questions coming out of the public deliberation regarding how it is for people who have been in the system and in jail. He interviewed as many as he could find who were willing and presented their views without naming them. So, our capacity was increased by finding a creative way of hearing from people who may not feel comfortable speaking out for themselves. Lowell Moore of NAACP has expressed his willingness to be a leader in continuing the conversation.  He's wondering what kind of “next conversation” will help us address the jail concern.

President Jeremy Travis of the John Jay College for Criminal Justice has invited communities across the country to ask themselves this question: Imagine if we reduced the number of people in our county jail to half of what it is now?  How might we want to spend the money that becomes available? Is this question appropriate for Salina at this time?

A couple of weeks after the deliberation event last fall, County Commissioner Dave Smith initiated a Community Advisory Board on Alternatives to Jail, the prevention and rehab approach. The Committee is chaired by Community Corrections Director Annie Grevas and held its first meeting on January 20, 2016. This Committee could approach its work in conventional ways and have conventional outcomes of technical solutions; or, it could have the capacity to frame approaches broadly and with maximum collaborative innovation. What can we do to enable this committee to be its most innovative and most inclusive?

Last November, Salina Initiative for Restorative Justice (SIRJ) hosted a free training for people—training funded by the county prosecutor’s office--who want to be part of a community justice initiative. One small change to the justice system, Neighborhood Accountability Boards have now been implemented with juvenile shoplifters. A panel of three volunteers has already helped a dozen young people think through what they did and who they harmed. The Boards have helped young people think through what they need to do to make things right. SIRJ is starting to talk with the Municipal Court about using Neighborhood Accountability Boards.   How else might these Boards or other alternatives address local criminal justice?

These new, ongoing activities show Salina's capacity for participatory democracy and civic innovation.  They give us the opportunity to stretch ourselves and expand our capacities for civic engagement. We aren't finished talking about criminal justice; we've only been at it for about five years and it can take ten years before a community has all the pieces in place to address a wicked issue.

When enough individuals and organizations step up to add their voice and their resources―including public research and especially their capacity to imagine new possibilities . . .

When we have come to understand each other’s views, solidified our social capital, and prioritized our foundational values. . .

When our elected officials recognize the value of this effort and support it. . .

When we have experimented and evaluated, and revised what we're trying . . .

Then there will be a day when we can say: “We're proud of our criminal justice system in Saline County, and we made it ourselves.”

For more information contact Thea Nietfeld at

February 2016