By Margaret Reist, Lincoln Journal Star
Members of Justice in Action — a nonprofit created last year to address mental health and criminal justice reform — filled the Lancaster County board room Tuesday to oppose the more than $1 million budgeted to move jail inmates to other counties to deal with overcrowding.
Several speakers urged the county to use the money instead to expand diversion and mental health programs.
“As people of faith, we believe in rehabilitation over incarceration,” said the Rev. Kirstie Engel of First United Methodist Church of Lincoln and one of the organization’s co-presidents. “We want people in our community to have access to organizations that give them the care and help they need to live positive and productive lives.”
The group’s appearance was prompted by a recent decision by county corrections officials to transfer 13 women in Lancaster County’s jail to a Washington County jail because there was no room for them.
County Corrections Director Brad Johnson had been warning of the possibility for months as the jail population increased during winter months when it typically goes down, and he included $1.1 million in his budget request to prepare for the possibility that they’ll need to transfer more inmates to other counties.
The county is in the process of contracting with an organization to do an assessment of the local justice system to find ways to reduce the jail population.
“I share their concerns of the jail being at capacity,” County Board Chairwoman Christa Yoakum said after the meeting. “The reason we are moving some of the women out is because the other option was to have them sleep on the floor, and that’s not humane.”
The money was allocated in case it’s necessary, but it doesn’t mean they have to use it, Yoakum said. The board also approved a new corrections position to help inmates make discharge plans in an effort to help them be successful, she said.
Engel said the group — comprised of leaders of Lincoln and Lancaster County faith communities — hopes a recently hired community corrections director will look for more alternatives to incarceration, but the money allocated to moving inmates convinced them they couldn’t just “wait and see.”
Tobi White, pastor of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, recalled a meeting in May discussing ways to increase diversion programs with county officials, and her group is “incredibly disappointed” to instead see the county allocate more than $1 million to rehousing inmates in other counties.
She said she knows many inmates suffer from substance use or mental health issues, and the organization’s research has shown diversion programs are successful.
“What I can’t understand is why such a logical approach gets pushed under the rug,” White said. “You and the people in the room have the power to make important directions. This is one of them. Let’s stop kicking the can down the road and start making wise decisions for the sake of our community. You have that power, so let’s start using that together.”
Several people said moving inmates makes it harder for families and attorneys to visit them, removes them from their support systems and leaves them feeling hopeless.
Former Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro, who was with the public defender’s office for 39 years, said moving people to other counties is harmful to the people being moved and could ultimately lead to a new jail — like it did a decade ago.
“Expanding diversion is a better solution than sending people to other counties, and it’s certainly a better solution than building a new jail,” Nigro said. “Because if we build it, we’ll fill it.”
View the original story here.