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Grassroots Criminal Justice Reform

A group of religious organizations in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County is advocating for criminal justice reform at the local level.  And they hope that government officials will find the solutions easy enough to put in place soon.  WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

Jane and Gene Meiser’s son spent six months in the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail last year. Their  experience with the criminal justice system was frustrating for them in many ways.

JANE MEISER: When you start putting it all together, it is just ridiculous.

One frustration was that providing their son with some basic things was expensive.

JANE MEISER: One of the first notes he wrote was, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, but I need money on my books so I can call and get stuff like socks, a shirt, shower stuff, and hygiene stuff and food and letters.’ Later he asks for money for thermal underwear and tops and bottoms because he was cold. And you can’t just bring in things from the outside. It all has to be bought through their commissary.

GENE MEISER: And the prices that they charge for the things make convenience store prices look very, very attractive.

There were fees for adding money to their son’s account, they said, high fees for phone calls – and a “keep fee,” which must be paid first, by them, since their son was in jail and not working.

That keep fee is one focus of Faith in Action, a coalition of 25 faith congregations in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Since 2015, they have joined ranks to find ways to promote specific solutions for a local, systemic issue each year. This year, they’re advocating for local criminal justice reform.

JENNIFER DAVIS SENSENIG: The United States leads the world in incarceration.

The president of Faith in Action is pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig. You can see the jail through the window behind her church office desk.

DAVIS SENSENIG: We know that we can’t tackle this national issue as our little coalition of 25 congregations, but we can make some changes here locally.

One change is the elimination of those jail keep fees for local inmates, fees which by state law may be established by any sheriff or jail superintendent to help defray the costs of a jail stay. At Middle River Regional Jail in Staunton, it’s $3 per day. It’s $1 per day at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail.

Faith in Action is also asking for the hiring of a community justice planner, and new rules to screen all juvenile justice cases to encourage the use of restorative justice.

Restorative justice – empowering the voices of those who have been harmed and giving opportunity to offenders to make things right – is not new to this area.

Lt. ROD POLLARD: I believe in restorative justice. I believe in restorative practices.

Harrisonburg Police Department Lt. Rod Pollard declined to speak about Faith in Action’s initiative, but said that he has seen the department’s use of restorative justice – in seven cases in 2017 – have an impact:

POLLARD: These restorative justice cases that are successful are extremely powerful to everybody involved and would almost be considered in some situations life-changing, because it gave people an opportunity to change their path, and it also gave the victims an opportunity to be very empowered. They have a huge voice in the outcomes, and the obligations coming out of the situation.

Faith in Action wants to see the expansion of the role of restorative justice here, first in juvenile cases and eventually for adults, too.

It’s also seeking the hiring of a community justice planner to report to the Harrisonburg and Rockingham Community Criminal Justice Board, or CCJB. Here is Davis Sensenig speaking to City Council in April:

DAVIS SENSENIG: Since Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have jointly invested in a new $3.1 million information and data collection system, we’re asking you to hire a well-qualified community justice planner who can analyze the data and apply for programs that will ultimately save us money and reduce local incarceration rates.

Faith in Action presented its campaign – and petitions that now have more than 1,000 signatures – to both Harrisonburg City Council and the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors earlier this year.

None of the supervisors provided comments for this report in response to an emailed request, and Rockingham County administrator and CCJB executive committee member Stephen King said that the supervisors have not directed staff to take any action regarding Faith in Action’s proposals. He said this about the community justice planner position:

KING: Can we already do that with folks we have on staff right now? -- is the question, and based on where we are right now with our data collection, is that the better option is to wait and and get a better sense for what we have? We don’t add positions lightly.

After Faith in Action presented its plan to Harrisonburg City Council, several councilors voiced support for at least part of the coalition’s proposals, including talking with the sheriff about eliminating the keep fee at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail.

If Gene Meiser could ask for one thing, especially for families whose main wage earners are in jail, it would be for the sheriff to drop that fee.

GENE MEISER: That in itself I think would make a real difference in people’s lives, and it would take a tremendous burden off probably the majority of the families.

Faith in Action plans to return to the Board of Supervisors and City Council later this year.

Christopher Clymer Kurtz was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.