VOICES: Montgomery County Jail Coalition calls for transparency in jail planning process

Daj’za Demmings, a member of the Montgomery County Jail Coalition, speaks at a news conference Wednesday, June 2, outside the jail. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

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Daj’za Demmings, a member of the Montgomery County Jail Coalition, speaks at a news conference Wednesday, June 2, outside the jail. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

The Montgomery County Jail Coalition formed in early 2020 to educate the public on the process underway to plan for the future of the county jail and advocate for humane and sensible alternatives to incarcerationto reduce the local jail population and eliminate the need to build a large, new jail in downtown Dayton. The Coalition wrote an open letter to Montgomery County Commissioners Dodge, Lieberman, and Rice, and Sheriff Streck.

On Thursday, Oct. 21, more than 50 Montgomery County community members gathered to collectively outline a positive, productive and fair process that would meet the public’s expectation of transparency in the County’s decision-making process surrounding a new jail. We remain concerned that they have indicated they are waiting for draft jail plans from HDR before engaging in a public dialogue around possible options (HDR is the consultant retained for a contract surpassing $600,000, tasked to develop the proposals). It is imperative to begin listening to their community before drafts are received in order to be able to fully evaluate the draft plans. In an attempt to educate the community and answer our own questions, we invited Montgomery County Commissioners Dodge, Lieberman, and Rice, and Sheriff Streck to attend a public town hall this month. They declined our invitation, so we decided to hold an event focused on transparency. We asked our community to envision a fully transparent and accessible process. We write today to share the results of that conversation and to ask them to implement these processes immediately into the jail decision-making process. As one of our participants said, “transparency should be everywhere and inescapable.”

First and foremost, the County must provide ample time for the community to provide input. The process up to now has taken almost two years. At least four months must be set aside for community meetings and input. Furthermore, the County must demonstrate how the public’s voice will be included in final plans. Whether through a public vote or a vote by a representative committee, we want to know that input will be taken seriously. The discussion at our event generated ideas that fall into three categories.

Accessibility and Input: Fully utilize all channels of communication invite input; at least three weeks advance notice of all public input meetings; make language of any updates and communication easy for laypeople to understand (“plain language”); use multiple languages to ensure full access to non-English speakers; and public meetings should be hybrid in-person/virtual, at multiple times to allow for working people to attend, and held in a variety of locations in different geographic areas.

Representation: Stakeholder representation should include diverse people, especially those who are directly impacted and have direct experience with incarceration; consultants should have a full understanding of mass incarceration and jail population reduction strategies; and the County should rely on credible experts to advise on options to address the root causes of incarceration, like bail reform, citation and release, and community-based treatment for mental health and substance use challenges.

Accountability: Full transparency on funding sources and total cost; publicly publish timeline of jail planning and construction; and proactively make all meeting notes and presentations easily accessible to the public rather than forcing community members to file endless public records requests. These should be available online and at no cost.

The participants in our events are everyday community members, family members of people who are incarcerated, formerly incarcerated people themselves, counselors and social workers, teachers, and business owners. A shared concern for the wellbeing of county residents brings us together. We want to see the County seriously address the jail conditions and commit to decarceration strategies in order to prevent a bloated, unnecessary jail. We want the County to implement forward-thinking steps that support community safety and health, informed by best practices in place across the country.

For this reason, we will continue our public dialogue with a Town Hall on Decarceration on Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. Again, we invite the Commission and the Sheriff’s office to participate in positive dialogue with their constituents.

Responses from Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert and Sheriff Streck will be published in tomorrow’s paper.

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