Harrisonburg has a bike plan, a parks and recreation plan, a downtown streetscape plan. It’s soon to begin developing a stormwater management plan. This week, a group calling itself Moving Beyond Jails (MBJ) asked city council to add another to that list: an Incarceration Reduction and Prevention Plan.
MBJ’s basic goal is to, within two years, reduce local jail incarceration to the point that we’re not using the Middle River Regional Jail at all. And within five years, reduce the jail population to the point that the downtown jail is sufficiently under capacity that it can hold all local inmates and have enough space from which to run alternative programs.
In a press release, the group writes that the city’s plan to join the Middle River Regional Jail Authority “is not a solution that builds our community up, rather, it is one where our government and justice system are continuing to create structures that tear people down.”
Last year, the city and county split a $120,000 bill to fund the planning process to build a new jail (a plan that ultimately served as bargaining chip in negotiations with Middle River). Beth Schermerhorn, a member of MBJ, says the group would like to see the city take an incarceration reduction planning process at least as seriously.
One its primary demands is for more transparency and community oversight – including a call for listening sessions, public comment period at every meeting of the Community Criminal Justice Board and appointment of people who’ve actually been held in jail to that board.
The plan, the group says, should also include recommendations for how Harrisonburg can provide:
- Full employment for city residents
- Improved services for mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment
- Increased investment in youth and community
One model the MBJ points to is the Jail Diversion Toolkit in San Antonio, Texas, where thousands of people are now annually diverted to better and cheaper solutions to problems than locking them up. (Note, too, the distinction between alternatives to incarceration once someone’s run afoul of the law, and earlier interventions – better employment, better investment in youth – that tamp down the need for both jail space and alternative program space.)
These sorts of sentiments have been floating around here for months now; MBJ’s request is that the city and its leaders, who have generally said nice-sounding stuff about them, get behind these things in a formalized & planned way.