Faith in Action Presentation to Harrisonburg City Council

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A number of people have asked to read the comments Pastor Jennifer shared at Harrisonburg City Council's meeting on April 24, on behalf of Faith In Action.

We are so glad to be here tonight. We are Faith in Action. We are a multi-faith coalition of 25 congregations in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. We are Roman Catholic, Muslim, Methodist, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Jewish, Unitarian, Episcopalian, and Brethren. We are growing. I am Jennifer Davis Sensenig. I’m lead pastor of Community Mennonite Church and president of Faith in Action. As Faith in Action we live and work and worship and vote in the city of Harrisonburg and Rockingham Co. We work together on local justice issues because our God calls us to seek justice for everyone in the community–from the least to the greatest–with an emphasis on the least, those whose voices or lives are sometimes overlooked or forgotten.

Last season, focusing on justice for immigrant neighbors, Faith in Action asked members of City Council to make Harrisonburg a Welcoming America City. And you said yes. Since then a Welcoming Harrisonburg Council has been established. And in two weeks a report will be published documenting the positive economic impact of the immigrants in our community. This report was a collaboration between James Madison University and the Chamber of Commerce. Harrisonburg was eligible for this research project because of our status as a Welcoming America City. So, tonight we’re here to say thank you, for voting yes–for voting unanimously in fact, on an important issue that Faith in Action brought to your attention.

Tonight we’re also here to address the need for local criminal justice reform. In recent weeks representatives from our Faith in Action congregations have spoken with each of you personally and with every member of the county board of supervisors. You all are busy people, so it takes time to set these meetings up. By our count 23 different individuals, representing 14 of our congregations have spoken with you personally because we care about local criminal justice reform. Those who are standing right now are people of faith from our congregations who are staying up late to bring your attention to changes we can make in this community.

Faith in Action is working in partnership on a criminal justice reform campaign with the Northeast Neighborhood Association, with the Fairfield Center, and with the Valley Justice Coalition. Other organizations endorsing this work are: the Zehr Institute of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU, Gemeinschaft, Harriet Tubman Center, and the Interfaith Association of Harrisonburg and Rockingham Co. And tonight we have we more than 800 signatures on our petitions for criminal justice reform and three specific actions.

As elected officials in the City of Harrisonburg we are counting on you to achieve policy changes that will improve the well-being of our community in terms of public safety, rehabilitation, reducing incarceration and restorative justice. Friends, the United States leads the world in incarceration rates. Are we a more criminally active country? No. But we have built up a system of incarceration that is not always serving the public good. It is expensive. It is not rehabilitative. It is selectively harming those whose family members are serving time. Now is the time to begin making small, substantive changes that will shift our tax dollars and our commitment toward greater justice. We know that you don’t control the whole system, but as our city council you have influence. The drug court is an example of a small, but substantive change that is beginning to make a difference in the possible futures for persons charged with drug offenses. We can do more and we have a moral responsibility to act.

Tonight we are asking you for three things:

First, Council members, recommend that Sheriff Hutcheson ease the financial burden on local residents by eliminating the $1/day keep fee paid by family members of those incarcerated in our local jail. Families of inmates should not shoulder this expense. Annually, this fee represents less than 0.1% of the jail budget. And this fee is not required by Virginia state code. It is discretionary. Urge Sheriff Hutcheson to eliminate the $1/day fee so that families who are facing poverty or are asset-limited, income constrained, employed (ALICE) are not further burdened by this fee. This would create greater justice for inmates’ families.

Second, let’s create greater justice for all taxpaying citizens of our community. Since Harrisonburg and Rockingham Co have jointly invested in a new $3.1 million information and data collection system, we are asking you to hire a well-qualified community justice planner who can analyze the data and apply for programs that will ultimately save us money and reduce local incarceration rates. To have a return for our investment on these millions, we must have a well-vetted, qualified staff planner serving our Community Criminal Justice Board and making the CCJB more effective in their mandate to reduce incarceration. Fiscal responsibility and public accountability are values that I know you share as elected officials. Put those values into action by hiring a planner. Other communities who have hired for this type of position find that it pays for itself as grant funding is awarded for programs to reduce incarceration rates for non-violent offenders.

Our third request, is a matter of greater justice for all victims of crime and wrongdoing. Let’s establish protocols for all our juvenile cases to be screened for a restorative justice process, and promote restorative justice for all cases whenever possible.

Faith in Action congregations have listened to the stories of people directly affected by our criminal justice system. And we have been moved and changed by these stories. When we return to City Council asking you to vote on these three matters, we will bring some courageous individuals who are willing to share their stories. As people of faith we want to support civic leaders who are moving us in the direction of greater justice. We are praying for you and for our city and county. We welcome conversation with you in the coming weeks.

[Followed by comments from Harvey Yoder and Daniel Barrows.]
Community Mennonite Church
70 South High Street Harrisonburg, VA