By Jennifer Wheeler, with many thanks to the Honorable Tina Nadeau, Chief Justice of the NH Superior Court; and Julie Howard, Clerk of the Strafford County Courthouse, for their contributions to the article

The Class of 2014 marks my seventh time visiting the Strafford County Complex on Leadership Seacoast’s Justice Day. Although the people in the classes have changed, I see a similar discovery of the issues as we move through this day, year after year.

Someone asked me if I’ve noticed any changes or trends over the years.  After spending some time thinking this through, here are the top five changes I’ve seen in in this area over the course of my tenure as Executive Director of Leadership Seacoast:

  1. More emphasis on drug court and evidence-based sentencing.  The typical view that we should lock ‘em all up doesn’t apply anymore.  There is a recognition by those working in the field that eventually, people who do “time” are going to be back out.  So the focus on criminal “justice” is changing.  Strafford County’s Drug Court continues to see success in rehabilitating those who are classified as ‘high risk’ (likely to continue reoffending) and ‘high need’’ (addiction).
  2. The dedication and passion to the work continues for those in this field.  I love the opportunity to catch up with my friend Julie Howard, Clerk of the Court, and am inspired by her commitment.  I enjoy hearing from Superior Court Justice Tina Nadeau every year, and am amazed by her compassion and care for those who appear in front of her.  I love to watch Carrie Lover Conway, Alex Casale, and County Attorney Velardi when the Drug Court graduates share their stories. They smile like proud parents, seeing the success of their daily work. Ray Bower and the staff at the House of Corrections are astonishing in the energy and enthusiasm they bring to their work, and it is inspiring to be around them.
  3. We still don’t understand how to deal with mental illness.   Despite the fact that a high percentage of inmates have some type of co-occurring disorder (i.e., addiction and mental illness), we still don’t have an effective method for dealing with these folks.  We know that there is a paucity of treatment programs in New Hampshire and Southern Maine for mental illness generally.  Add to that substance abuse and stir in a big dose of criminal behavior, and treating this population is next to impossible.  Strafford County appears to be proactive as a criminal justice system on this issue, but everyone acknowledges there is still a great deal of work to be done.
  4. Despite the acknowledgement that we have an issue, we still don’t know how to fix it.  The challenge is that there is no one magic button we can push. It’s about finding the many necessary right buttons and pushing them in the right order.  Prevention, funding, mental health, addiction, homelessness:  I see these issues as a big ball of knotted string.  A twisted, tangled knot that takes time to unwind, and if you pull too soon or too hard on one side, you’ll just make the knot harder to untangle.  Who starts the process of addressing the issues?  Where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it?  Who pays for it?  How do we convince the players to cooperate?
  5. Inconsistencies remain across the counties when it comes to issues of criminal justice.  While it is energizing and inspiring to spend time in Strafford County, one has to wonder why there is such disparity in evidenced-based sentencing among the counties.  If a person commits a crime in Rockingham County, the treatment options in that County House of Corrections are markedly different from the options if a person commits a crime in Strafford County. If a person commits a crime in Carroll County, there are no treatment options. The various criminal justice systems individually have tremendous energy and commitment from all of their players.  However, without the availability of consistent programs across the state, the overall result is patchwork.

So how do we as leaders make a difference?

This is a perpetual question I see Leadership Seacoast participants asking themselves and others at the conclusion of Justice Day each year.  I asked Chief Justice Tina Nadeau and Clerk of the Court Julie Howard for their thoughts on this topic.  Here are the qualities that we all feel are important for leaders today and which we see in the people making the greatest impact as leaders in our communities:

1. Self-Awareness: Before leading others, leaders must know their own strengths and abilities

2. Eagerness to Learn: Studying different perspectives and angles of a situation helps leaders to make great decisions that positively impact others.

3. Empathy: Understand the circumstances and perspectives of others.

4. Honesty: Obviously, leaders must be trustworthy.

5. Dedication: The work of a community leader takes time and persistence.

6. Service: Personal service is essential to maintaining the structure of a well-functioning community.

7. Interpersonal Skills: Leaders must develop the ability to interact effectively with people from all walks of life.

8. Forward-thinking: Good leaders do not confine themselves to the status quo;
they have a vision for the future.

9.  Intelligence: Leaders know the importance of engaging in critical thinking

10. Motivation: Leaders are motivated and motivate others.

Today’s leaders can apply these qualities when working to make a difference in their communities.

How can you help? Learn more about the complicated issues involved with criminal justice, corrections, addiction, mental health, juvenile justice, women’s justice, drug courts, mental health courts, prevention, and community diversion. Become familiar with the programs and services that are offered in your community or county, and understand how are they funded. Identify the people who work in these important fields, and ask them, “What would you do if you could?”  And finally – and critically – learn more about the public policies being discussed that could make an impact on these issues.

Then use what you learn to motivate your community to understand the judicial system, to support it, to improve it and to preserve it.