HARRISONBURG — After years of discussion, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County plan to post a job advertisement next month for the area’s first community justice planner.
The planner will be tasked with evaluating the criminal justice system and recommending changes to reduce incarceration rates at the Rockingham County Jail and in the city and county’s portion of Middle River Regional Jail.
Faith in Action and the Northeast Neighborhood Association have pushed for the position for the past two years.
“We are pleased,” said Jennifer Davis Sensenig, lead pastor of the Community Mennonite Church and president of Faith in Action. “We’re so grateful.”
Rockingham County Administrator Stephen King said the idea for a planner started being discussed about five years ago as incarceration numbers at the Rockingham County Jail continued to increase.
At one point, the jail was operating above capacity.
Harrisonburg and Rockingham County bought into the jail in May 2015 to alleviate overcrowding at the 315-bed Rockingham County Jail in downtown Harrisonburg.
King said the position will help to create or adjust programs aimed at keeping people out of jail.
“The ultimate goal is to look for opportunities to reduce the number of people in jail,” he said.
One of the ways, King said, could be to change the jail’s re-entry program, which is designed to prepare inmates to re-enter society.
Faith in Action, which formed about two years ago, started pushing for the position as beds at Middle River began to fill up.
“The opportunity before us is to gather data about who is being incarcerated locally, and for how long, and at what expense to the taxpayers,” Davis Sensenig said.
The position came with mixed reviews.
Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, who oversees the jail, argued that a full-time position wasn’t needed and a consultant could evaluate the jail and offer solutions at a much cheaper price.
However, the city and county voted to include $40,000 each in the 2019-20 fiscal-year budget. The $80,000 per year is slated to pay the salary, benefits and supplies for the position.
King said the position will be evaluated in three years to see if progress has been made.