Johnson County Attorney Race – Commentary by Greg Johnson

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Friday, 2 May 2014

The Democratic Party nomination for Johnson County Attorney has gained much media attention, and plenty of involvement among local residents. I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the two candidates.

Janet Lyness

Two weeks ago I met with Janet Lyness to learn more about her campaign. Although I’d worked with Janet in the past on the Justice Center initiative, I was interested to hear more about her role as County Attorney and what plans she has for the coming years. An incumbent’s job is to remind the public of past accomplishments, and in my meeting with Janet we talked about the numerous jail alternatives she has supported, the community partners she has been supportive of, and the declining jail population in Johnson County (at a time when the county population is increasing). Janet described the diverse and complex challenges faced by a County Attorney. What impressed me, in addition to the points already mentioned, is the extent to which Janet has established working relationships across multiple local departments, agencies, and organizations. In my mind, this is probably the aspect of her job that’s the most challenging and important.

In supporting the Justice Center initiative, and in other ways, Janet has been a strong advocate for seeking public support and funding for administrative infrastructure to meet the space and security needs of county offices.

It’s very important to me that a community values, respects, appreciates, and supports those who serve in law enforcement. I feel that Janet recognizes this, and she has demonstrated support for the infrastructure needs of law enforcement.

In May of 2013, when the Justice Center didn’t achieve a supermajority vote, there was a meeting of those supportive of the Justice Center. The meeting was to bring closure to the campaign. At that time, I asked the group if I could continue to volunteer time maintaining the website and Facebook pages. I was thankful to Janet for being supportive of my request.

In my own interactions with Janet, I’ve found her to be professional, courteous, responsive, effective, and competent. She’s been a pleasure to work with.

Given the current trajectory of our declining jail population, in another eight years the daily average incarceration would be down from 139 to about 93 (by 2021/2022). This is down from 162 (the average for 2010-2011). You can see where that trend is going. Johnson County continues to have one of the lowest incarceration rates (per 100,000 people) in the world. I credit this to our investment in education, social services, preventative programs, diversion programs, and effective reentry programs. Other counties in the United States of similar population might have an average of 700 or more people incarcerated. By contrast, our daily average of 139 is an accomplishment.

On April 19, Rod Sullivan wrote a very thoughtful endorsement of Janet Lyness. I agree with much of what Rod shared, and I appreciate the non-confrontational tone of his writing. I’d recommend reading Rod’s endorsement if you’ve not seen it already.

As a supporter of Janet Lyness for 8+ years, I continue to value the work she does, and supporting Janet in her reelection would be an obvious choice for me. Yet, I’ve also found John Zimmerman’s message an important and compelling one.

John Zimmerman

On January 8, John Zimmerman held a public meeting to announce that he would be running for County Attorney. Since I’m the ‘news team’ for the Justice Center website, I thought I should go and cover the event. So, I planned to make a video recording of the event. At the meeting, I saw many familiar faces — it was mostly the same group of people who I’ve spent the past 15 months butting heads with over the Justice Center. “Well… This is awkward…,” I thought to myself. Yet, everyone from the former anti-Justice Center group was quite friendly with me. I had tried to be cordial during that campaign and didn’t want to alienate anyone, so I think that may have helped, but also I think they were equally interested in reaching out to me. Due to a technical problem, the video recording made by the Zimmerman team did not come out right. So, I offered to share mine with them as well as some photos I’d taken.

The week after his announcement, I met with John to discuss his campaign. Beyond having an interest in his message, I explained to John that I saw the County Attorney race as an opportunity to connect with the ‘No New Jail’ group and find some common ground on issues that we agree on. I felt the unfortunate polarization in our community over the Justice Center facility was counter productive, and working on common concerns might be a good thing.

As I reached out to connect with the Zimmerman campaign team, I was warmly received. Soon I was added to the campaign’s internal communications, which I felt was quite a gesture of trust on their part – which I’ve respected and honored. I’m fairly busy these days, but as I’ve had time I have contributed to their conversation. Having a look into the inner workings of the Zimmerman campaign has given me a unique opportunity to see how effectively John was able to assemble, manage, and inspire a group of people toward producing desired outcomes. In this regard, a political campaign isn’t so much a popularity contest as it is a “working skills-test job interview” to examine a person’s leadership and administrative skills. I’m kind of a branding and graphic design geek, so early on I was impressed with the graphic design and consistent branding throughout their social media presence, website, and print media. I also have an interest in web design, so I was impressed with the website they developed (based on responsive design principles).

Disproportionate and Racist Outcomes

On June 4, 2013, the findings of a national ACLU study concluded that Iowa is the worst state in the nation when it comes to racial bias. The press release stated: “A Black Person in Iowa Is More Than 8 Times as Likely to be Arrested for Possession Than a White Person, Despite Equal Usage Rates.” That’s not exactly what we want our state to be known for. Unfortunately, there’s been no substantive reaction by policy makers or political leaders in response to this report. So, it’s unlikely that these conditions have changed.

John Zimmerman and his supporters feel not enough is being done to correct for racial bias. As an article in the Press Citizen points out, “Forty percent of the local jail population is non-white in a county that is less than 3 percent black.” Some opponents have called John Zimmerman a “Radical” because of his views. However, in hearing Zimmerman’s campaign message, that wasn’t my conclusion. In fact, I’d heard his message before. It’s the same message I’ve been hearing from Attorney General Eric Holder over the past year. I don’t think that Zimmerman is copying Holder’s talking points, but instead has independently arrived at the same conclusions.

Here is Eric Holder’s weekly message from today (May 2) on the topic of disproportionate racial outcomes:

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The video message above is very similar to John Zimmerman’s message about the problem of racially disproportionate outcomes and possible solutions.

Best Practices in Responding to Substance Abuse

At a time when marijuana is becoming legal across the country, and the Justice Department and White House are preparing to let thousands of convicted crack cocaine users free from prison, our own community should consider where we want to focus our limited law enforcement and justice services resources.

Regarding marijuana use, alcohol abuse, and other substance/addiction concerns; perhaps these are better addressed through community programs and agencies rather than sending people through the criminal justice system. Spending our scarce time, money, staff, and space on prosecuting minor marijuana possession offenders, for example, is not the best choice.

As Attorney General Eric Holder has repeatedly stated, we simply do not have the money or law enforcement personnel to discover and prosecute every violation of the law. So, we must choose where our emphasis will be.

While Johnson County has a Marijuana Diversion Program, some feel it’s requirements are outdated, burdensome, and the program seems to view casual users of marijuana as being equal to someone addicted to heroin.

Radical or Mainstream

On just about every point of John Zimmerman’s campaign platform, I can find other people taking the same position, including judges, members of law enforcement, state Governors, corrections officers, prison wardens, social workers, and average citizens. See “Justice Reinvestment” below for examples.

In reading more about John, frankly it’s hard not to take an interest in his campaign. He’s a long-time social justice activist and former Mennonite pastor who now has a law degree. That’s a promising combination of skills, experiences, and qualifications for someone to effect positive change.

My Goals

Given that part of my goal at this time is reconciliation and building alliances across interest groups, I felt it was important to take a relatively neutral position during the campaign and, if anything, reach out to the Zimmerman team.

Also, I feel that the role of a Justice Center should be to raise public awareness and interest in justice services issues. In the same way that the National Dairy Council promotes diary products without endorsing a particular company, a Justice Center can promote community involvement and engagement by sharing news from multiple interest groups. So, I’m trying to report about both candidates equally through the website and Facebook page.

As with any political race, part of the formula for helping your candidate win is to point out the failings of the other candidate. In the County Attorney race, concerns have been raised on both sides regarding the other’s ability to serve. These concerns about each candidate can be found in letters to the editor and other news coverage about the County Attorney race on the JCJustice Center Facebook page.

Justice Reinvestment

Over the past year I’ve spent time reading about and researching national justice system trends and innovations. One of my sources of information has been the Council of State Governments Justice Center. I’ve listened to policy makers, administrators, and panels testifying before congress. From the police on the streets, to judges like Steven Alm, to Public Advocates like Bill de Blasio, all the way up to the Attorney General Eric Holder, (check the links for great content), I’ve been hearing a unified chorus. Their overarching message is about Justice Reinvestment.

To summarize the message of Justice Reinvestment, here’s a quote from Jim D. Seward, General Counsel, Office of the Governor, State of South Dakota:

“The governor said, ‘Jim, I want you to take a look at this – because of the budget, but most importantly because of humanity. If we’re locking up a bunch of non-violent folks that we shouldn’t lock up, we really should take a look at that, and we shouldn’t be afraid to take a look at ourselves.’ We took a look at the data, and the data showed that 81% of our prison new commitments to prison in 2012 were for non-violent felonies. So, [as a result of Justice Reinvestment] we expanded things like drug courts, and DUI courts, HOPE courts, and earned discharge on probation and parole so that early on, resources can be focused on the folks who are most likely to reoffend, and the people that don’t need to be supervised can go home and go to work and help the rest of us out.” (source)

There are many other stories like this one. Those who are embracing and implementing policies of Justice Reinvestment are seeing results. North Carolina is on track to close five prisons and reinvest the millions saved back into local communities.

I’m thankful that Johnson County is already aligned in many ways with the justice system reform movement. Yet, we still have a lot of room for improvement. It’s up to voters to decide what approach can move us forward in the most effective way.

Get Involved

Whoever you are, I’d encourage you to learn more about both candidates, and get involved somehow. If all you do is go out and vote, that’s admirable. However, in our democratic process, each of us can magnify our impact by getting involved early on and helping candidates get their message out. Instead of having one vote, you can influence hundreds or thousands of votes through contributing your time and money to a campaign or cause you believe in. That’s really where the excitement and rewards of Democracy take place. Letters to the editor and other news coverage about the County Attorney race can be found on the JCJustice Center Facebook page. Here are the candidate websites:

Q&A

Some questions have come in from readers about the article above, so I thought I’d answer them here.

Jail Population

Q: You’ve provided an optimistic projection regarding our declining jail population. How can we accurately predict the future jail population? Wouldn’t it eventually plateau or possibly go up in the future? Is there any data that can reliably predict future demands?

A: There are many factors and data points that one might consider when trying to predict future incarceration demands. Changes in crime rates aren’t necessarily the only factor. Some things we have control over, or at least we have an ability to influence, and some things we can’t control. Increased policing could result in more people being arrested even if crime was constant. More vigilant neighborhood watch and Crime Stoppers programs could result in more people being arrested. It’s been said that “Zimmerman will prosecute aggressively domestic violence, sexual assault, acquaintance rape and burglary.” (source) This would likely result in more people being put in jail. However, when balanced with fewer incarcerations for non-violent crimes the incarceration rate would likely stay the same. The most persuasive data we have available is that from mentoring programs. President Obama recently initiated a youth program that lowers violent crime by 44%. Youth involved in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program are 46% less likely to be using illegal drugs. So, as long as our community continues to invest in these kinds of initiatives, our crime rate and subsequent incarceration rate should remain relatively low (compared to communities that don’t make that investment).

Experience

Q: Isn’t Janet Lyness more experienced than John Zimmerman?

A: As with any incumbent, Janet has more experience at her job than anyone else. Janet has a lot of courtroom experience. John’s work as a pastor and social justice activist are assets. As far as the details of their successes and failures, I think that’s something voters can explore and evaluate.

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Your Feedback. There may be some typos, or perhaps some room for improvement in the above writing. Feel free to submit any comments, corrections, or suggestions through the contact page. I can either make corrections above, or include your comments below. Thanks!

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Categories: Announcement, Commentary, Justice Reform, Video

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One Comment on “Johnson County Attorney Race – Commentary by Greg Johnson”

  1. Karen disbrow
    May 3, 2014 at 12:18 pm #

    I think you did a very good job of identifying the candidates
    I am supporting Janet. She personally prosecuted 60 cases last year. I think we need an attorney with judicial experience that John lacks.

    This position is not merely an administrative one as I have heard John describe it.

    John is a very good advocate for those with no voice; but Janet is the one that has installed programs that have a made Johnson
    County the most progressive County in the state.

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