By Laura Penington, Lincoln Journal Star

Earlier this month, more than 1,000 Nebraskans attended the first call-to-action event held by Justice in Action — a nonprofit organization formed in 2022 by leaders of Lincoln and Lancaster County faith congregations dedicated to creating community change.

“Our philosophy is that there are two types of power in the public arena,” said the Rev. Kirstie Engel of First United Methodist Church of Lincoln, who is a Justice in Action co-president. “The first is money and the second is people. We believe in the power of organized people. Organized people have the power to build the collective will to transform our community. That is the core of Justice in Action.”

In October of 2022, faith congregations across the Lincoln and Lancaster County areas hosted nearly 90 meetings where Nebraskans could share problems they were passionate about and wanted to address in the community.

From the eight issues that emerged from those meetings, two were selected by popular vote at a November assembly as the organization’s first challenges to tackle: mental health and criminal justice reform. Two issues will be selected annually, allowing the organization to focus their resources more efficiently.

“In my professional life, I study criminology and public health,” said Lisa Kort-Butler, a member of Horizons Community Church in Lincoln and Justice in Action’s research team. “When we, as an organization, decided that those were the things we were going to be focusing on, I thought, ‘Hey, that’s right in my wheelhouse, this is something I can help with.'”

By December, Kort-Butler and nearly 200 other Justice in Action staff and community members were involved in the research process — meeting with experts, looking through prior studies and attempting to form specific, measurable solutions to present at May’s Nehemiah Action Assembly.

“We started meeting with people who we identified as stakeholders in the community, who were experts on these processes,” Kort-Butler said. “On the criminal justice side, we met with folks doing prison missionary work, a UNL law professor who specializes in restorative justice, the director of community corrections at the time, the county attorney, and so on.”

Kort-Butler said the meetings often took the form of large panel interviews where the research teams would ask questions, take notes and learn where Justice in Action could have an impact.

“We were very pleased with the response from the different offices we reached out to,” she said. “It’s been exciting to see positive action for change and to bring people together from all parts of the county who have different points of view, centered around this core value of justice for our neighbors.”

When all the information was gathered, the two Justice in Action research teams created reports to present to elected officials at the Nehemiah Action Assembly on May 4.

The organization invited County Commissioner Christa Yoakum, Councilwoman Sändra Washington, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, County Commissioner Rick Vest, Councilman James Michael Bowers, and County Attorney Pat Condon — hoping to gain commitments to implement the proposed solutions and policies.

“We want everyone to leave here knowing where our elected officials stand and what can happen next,” Engel said to the assembled crowd. “We didn’t name this group Justice in Words, we named it Justice in Action.”

Yoakum, Washington and Bowers heard the solution from Justice in Action’s mental health committee — a navigation program modeled after one in Toronto — to increase accessibility to existing mental health resources. Gaylor Baird was unable to attend but sent a representative in her place.

“People experiencing mental health issues in Lancaster County are often unable to access timely and appropriate care and end up interacting with the criminal justice system, which is costly and robs them of the opportunity to receive the ongoing care they need to lead productive and positive lives,” the report on mental health read.

Engel said a navigation program would provide trained personnel to help Nebraska’s families navigate available resources based on their specific situations and needs, a program that hasn’t existed since the Community Mental Health Center closed in 2014.

All three elected officials agreed to meet with Justice in Action and Toronto Navigation representatives in early June to further discuss the program and work to establish a working idea for a Lincoln program by early 2024.

“We have wonderful nonprofits doing really, really hard work,” Yoakum said. “But it is a tough system to navigate.”

On the criminal justice reform stage, Vest heard a proposal to increase the community corrections budget to add staff, eliminate fees for diversion programs and create a real-time online dashboard that publishes data on inmates and individuals in diversion programs. Condon was unable to attend.

“County jails are the front door to mass incarceration,” the criminal justice reform committee wrote in their report. “A growing number of people are placed or kept in the Lancaster County Jail for nonviolent offenses because the local system doesn’t have sufficient tools, discretion, or community-based alternatives to address their needs while maintaining public safety.”

According to Engel, diversion refers to programs that offer an alternative to arrest, prosecution and incarceration.

“Recidivism for those serving time in the Lancaster County Jail is around 60%, while recidivism for those successfully completing a Community Corrections diversion program is only 20%, which means these programs improve public safety,” said Engel.

Vest said some of the requests, like the dashboard, were already in progress and money for the rest will be there “when the time is right.”

While he said he couldn’t make a commitment while the search for a permanent Community Corrections director continued, Vest pledged to address the budget proposals within 90 days of the new hire.

And this won’t be the last Lincoln sees of Justice in Action, though the topics may vary over the coming years.

“Every year we’ll decide on, as an organization, two topics to pursue,” Kort-Butler said. “They may be brand new ones, or they may carry the torch forward and make sure action is happening. Our intent is to continue until we see change happening and to hold people accountable to that — we’re not disappearing in any sense, this is long work that requires endurance and we’re in for pursuing this as long as it takes.”

View the original story here.