Compassionate justice group reports findings
- Published: October 16, 2021
Greene County Coalition for Compassionate Justice, or GCCCJ, held a public online meeting Tuesday, Oct. 5 to relay the findings of its Greene County Pretrial System Assessment Report.
The report discussed the state of pretrial justice in Greene County, provided a historical overview of race relations in the county and summarized ongoing community conversations.
The report was issued to provide greater context around Issue 1, a proposed levy to build a new jail.
Villagers and members of local advocacy groups have been organizing around the fate of the Greene County Jail and Adult Detention Center since the Greene County commissioners proposed a .25% tax increase to build a 500-bed jail in 2019.
At that time, the group was known as Greene County Citizens Against Giant Jail Tax. When that ballot measure was defeated in March 2020, organizers decided to look at the jails and the systemic issues that keep them full. Renaming themselves the GCCCJ, the group decided to focus on pretrial incarceration rates in Greene County. According to villager Bomani Moyenda, GCCCJ accepted an invitation from the Pretrial Justice Initiative, or PJI, to collaborate on a local vision for pretrial justice.
To begin their investigation, the groups requested current incarceration rate data from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office and Greene County Commissioners. The requested data from elected officials included the number of responses by officers to mental or behavioral health issues, the number of people in jail because they cannot afford a cash bond and the number of people in jail after failing to appear in court.
According to villagers Dorothée Bouquet and Megan Guevera of PJI, current data has either not been collected or was not shared. The report concluded that PJI was unable to make recommendations due to the lack of data from Greene County.
“After reading the report, we [GCCCJ] don’t think people should vote for it,” Moyenda said.
The report admits that the conversation is complicated by the poor state of the current facility, the active consent decree, the needs of the jail population and the low levels of violent crime throughout Greene County.
“This is a very nuanced conversation,” said Guevera. “Voters are being asked to vote with insufficient information.”
Testimony from Greene County residents showed stark conditions faced by inmates at the current facilities. Maggie Morrison, whose 28-year-old son spent time in the county jail, said that despite his known mental health and substance abuse issues, he did not receive any mental health services during his 12-month stay, which included eight months pretrial. She said that jails are being used to house people experiencing mental health troubles, calling jails “the new asylums.”
“I watched my son’s mental, emotional and physical health deteriorating during his time there,” she said.
Morrison also noted that much of the discussion prior to the Greene County commissioners’ decision to put the levy on the ballot focused on the facilities rather than the people who were incarcerated and how they were treated.
“A new facility will only be that,” she said. “What happens inside the facility and the lives impacted by the implementation of real mental health care or services is where I feel we should be putting our time and our tax dollars for better use.”
Kate LeVesconte, a Yellow Springs-based clinical psychologist, spoke about the difficulty of seeking mental health services while in jail. She said that people are not able to use their Medicaid benefits while incarcerated, so they are not able to access the healthcare they need. In addition, she says that the Greene County commissioners don’t believe it is their responsibility to spend money on mental health services.
“It’s a little bit of a hot potato,” she said.
Dorothée Bouquet summarized the broader context affecting the numbers of people who may be incarcerated in the future. She cited data from the Greene County Jail showing that in 2017, 80% of people held there are dealing with substance use disorders. Additionally, 82% of inmates have previously been incarcerated or have had interactions with the police.
“We are cycling people over and over, hoping that putting them in jail will give them an answer to their health needs and it’s not working,” Bouquet said. “It’s expensive and ineffective.”
According to Bouquet, 40% of people held in Greene County jails are awaiting trial. She also noted that many of those people are nonviolent offenders. Currently there are two bills working through the Ohio Legislature, which would change the bail system in Ohio.
“This could be a game changer in assessing how many beds we actually need,” she said.
Fairborn Municipal Court Judge Beth Cappelli addressed the group, sharing strategies that she implemented ahead of recent changes to the Ohio Supreme Court rules on bail. When the pandemic hit, she implemented the Model Bond system. According to rules established in March of 2021, courts must prioritize nonmonetary bail for nonviolent offenders. In Cappelli’s court, that means that any nonviolent offender without a warrant is released while they await trial.
As part of the evaluation, PJI gave suggestions of more judicious ways to use taxpayer dollars, how those dollars are used in other communities and what is possible for Greene County.
Guevara said that spending dollars to keep people incarcerated can be bad for a community. According to the report, when people are held in pretrial custody, they often lose their jobs, custody of their children, their homes or even their lives.
“We know that pretrial stays, even short ones, increase the likelihood that someone will commit a new crime in the future,” she said.
Guevara discussed several alternatives to policing that are being implemented nationwide, including having an alternate number for those experiencing mental health crises, programming that establishes rides and childcare for people who’ve been summoned to appear in court and creating community-based diversion programs that get people needed treatment as an alternative to serving time in jails.
“We would love to be able to have those conversations across the county … and really be able to understand how we can match what the research says is most effective with what the needs are of people in Greene County,” she said.