Community Portrait: Sonya Harper

This Community Portrait is the second in a series highlighting individuals who are championing cross-systems collaboration and data sharing within their jurisdictions to respond to the needs of frequent utilizers of justice, health and human services systems.

Sonya Harper has spent her career working on criminal justice reform and addressing racial and ethnic disparities. She is a native of North Carolina and currently resides in Mecklenburg County as the director of the Criminal Justice Services Department. Sonya didn’t always know she wanted to work in the criminal justice space. She started college as a biology major but one elective criminal justice class inspired Sonya to switch her major to criminal justice. That decision led Sonya to a master’s degree in public administration and a career dedicated to criminal justice reform. Mecklenburg County has a history of investing in criminal justice reform at the county level which has allowed Sonya and the Criminal Justice Services Department to implement broad and innovative reforms.

Q: Every county is a little bit different in the way that they are run. How would you describe the role of the Department of Criminal Justice Services (CJS) in Mecklenburg County? 

A: We are very unique in comparison to other places in North Carolina and in the rest of the country as well. I believe that we are the only county in North Carolina that has a fully established county department dedicated to this work. There are roughly 65 of us in the department right now, and we have six units. I see Criminal Justice Services (CJS) as the neutral ground of the local criminal justice system. We have core programs and services that we offer to justice-involved individuals and our data capacity permits us to serve as the entity that’s keeping a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the local criminal justice system. As a result, we are able to work with the other criminal justice partners on the development, launch and implementation of a variety of different strategies and initiatives.

Q: You obviously have many different programs and many different priorities. How were you involved in helping Mecklenburg County leaders decide to join Data-Driven Justice (DDJ)? Was there a specific issue you were trying to solve?

A: When I arrived in Mecklenburg County, it was right at the point where we were joining DDJ. Data plays a big role in the identification of strategies and initiatives within the jurisdiction and allows us to monitor the overall health of our local criminal justice system. It (DDJ) allows the opportunity to partner with other organizations and to connect with other places in the country that have similar initiatives. It is important for data to be part of any conversation in criminal justice whether it’s related to policy or programming and it is important to craft those policies in response to what’s occurring and what the extent of the issue is that you’re trying to address.

Q: How would you describe your role and the role of the research and planning team within the department of criminal justice services? 

A: My role is to oversee the department. In Data-Driven Justice, I serve as a liaison for our research and planning team to make contributions and to carry things over that we can implement within our local jurisdiction. We participate in the events and things that NACo holds, and we were able to tap into additional resources through DDJ. Through DDJ we were also able to connect with partners through University of Maryland and The University of Chicago to have some of our analysts within our research and planning teams participate in a long-term workshop to really build data capacity.

Q: How do your elected officials play into local DDJ efforts?

A: Our Board of County Commissioners champions our work and has recognized the need to have these criminal justice investment services in place. It has been through their support that we have built out a number of things within our department including our data warehouse.

Commissioner George Dunlap, in particular, has served on NACo’s Justice and Public Safety Policy Steering Committee, which has been another outlet for us to be further engaged with the work. When it comes to DDJ, our commissioners agree that we should be making decisions based on what we see in the data. We are always able to provide the data to back up whatever it is that we’re putting out there.

Q: What steps are being taken in your community to assist individuals who are frequent utilizers?

A: Frequent utilizers are a population that every jurisdiction struggles with and in Mecklenburg County, we’re no exception. We have an active Stepping Up Committee (STEP) that’s able to bring forth recommendations based on what the partners see happening in the community. We discovered early on that we needed a better mechanism in place to identify, direct and avert frequent utilizers out of the criminal justice system. Through our Board of County Commissioners, we made investments to create jail diversion programming within the department; that rests within our forensic evaluations unit (FEU), which is a team made up of psychologists and licensed clinicians. These psychologists and clinicians, with our FEU, conduct appropriate screenings and assessments and then make recommendations based on their findings to the court and community-based service providers. They also make connections with community-based services so that we can get frequent utilizers released and then treated within the community.

We’ve also invested in social worker positions within our public defender’s office. A couple of years ago, we started a SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery (SOAR) program within CJS specifically targeting frequent utilizers. We recognize, with frequent utilizers, that homelessness is often an area of concern; through our work with SOAR and with clinicians from within our department and within the community, we’ve been able to connect them with Social Security and disability benefits, which in turn opens the door for them to be eligible for Medicaid, housing assistance and many other things.

Another thing that we’ve created is a program called Homeless Outreach and Prevention (HOP). HOP serves as a forum for police officers who are encountering these frequent utilizers in the community – including those experiencing homelessness – and who know that arresting them is not the appropriate response. Police can staff cases with this group, allowing this team to start working with those individuals and getting them connected so that we can try to head off that criminal justice contact as early on as we possibly can.

We are also in the process of expanding to add another clinician within the department that will work specifically with our pretrial services group and help us to identify and connect those who are coming through on the front end of the system with appropriate services. The hope is to get them out of the criminal justice system or at least prevent them from moving further or deeper into the system.

Q: The calls for defunding the police cause concern that positive programs like HOP and partnerships with law enforcement on supporting frequent utilizers are at risk of being cut. How is your department promoting the positive work that you all are doing for this population?

A: I think emotions are very high right now amongst members of our community, particularly our communities of color and it is important for those in government, specifically those of us that are in criminal justice, to be open to hearing from folks in the community and being open to change. We’ve been trying to utilize those opportunities for community conversation to highlight the positive work that is happening. The City of Charlotte has a new police chief that just started this month who is open to conversations on whether there are more appropriate places for certain types of programs to rest.

An important thing for people to know and understand, regarding behavioral health and mental health, is that the criminal justice system has become the catch-all for a lot of societal ails. It has been challenging to address a lot of the things it was not necessarily designed to address nor resourced to address. This begs the question, is the police department really the right partner to take on behavioral health programs? Or would those programs be better served in another place? Answers will vary depending on jurisdiction. Right now, we are just trying to take advantage of the opportunities to interface with the community and have those discussions about these pieces of work that are happening that a lot of people just historically have not known about. The community conversations that are happening have served as a conduit to get messaging to reach people we have not reached in the past.

Q: Do you have a racial and ethnic disparities (RED) working group or do you have any targeted programs or data through your research and planning that’s specifically looking at RED?

A: Yes. We have a RED Workgroup. Formally established in 2018, that group started as a result of more than a year’s worth of conversation on racial disparities and we have made quite a bit of progress in that area. RED is a topic that is very uncomfortable for a lot of folks and many challenging conversations have resulted from that workgroup. We knew those disparities and disproportionalities existed because we saw it every day when looking at who was in our jails and courtrooms. The vast majority of people going through those doors are people of color. We partnered with the W. Haywood Burns Institute to do an actual disparities and disproportionality data analysis which gave us an indication as to what those disparities look like in our local justice system. This enabled us to discuss what needs to change with the way that we do work at different touch points within our system. Through the support of our RED Workgroup and through the coordinated criminal justice council which we call our Criminal Justice Advisory Group (CJAG), we just recently released this curriculum on unconscious bias which was designed specifically for criminal justice professionals.

With RED, we have to get to a point of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. When we first started delving into the data, there was that hesitancy about running this data, having it in front of us and seeing exactly how bad the situation was. Before we started, we had that conversation and came to the acceptance that the data was going to be bad. You must understand that RED work is years long work and it’s not a short-term project. You must be dedicated to doing the work for an extended period of time if you’re truly really interested in making change within your system that ultimately, you’ll be able to produce outcomes from.

Q: What inspires you? What gets you out of bed every morning?

A: I have been working in criminal justice in some capacity or another for over 20 years. I recognize the decisions that we make and the things we do have an actual impact on people’s lives. If done well, it affords us the capacity to make significant lasting change for folks in the community. It’s knowing that the work provides the opportunity to make a difference, to do something positive and to be an agent of positive change, especially for those in the community who need it most.

Q: What advice or recommendations do you have for county leaders like yourself who are contemplating or making efforts to advance and innovate within the justice and mental health field?

A: To have significant change and reform, you need multiple partners at the table. If you don’t already have a coordinated council, make plans to build one or at least have a forum where you’re creating safe spaces to have these open discussions with your leadership. Not everyone will agree with each other all the time, but at least you’re having the discussion. The other thing is that you need a lot of patience as change takes time. Understand that these aren’t short term projects and that you have to be in it for the long haul. Lastly, data should be part of every conversation, initiative and strategy, and you need to be willing to respond to what you see in the data.

NACo would like to thank Sonya Harper for speaking with us about her and Mecklenburg County’s efforts.