Tiffany Iheanacho says she’s “good at helping others help others.” She knows it takes a village to change a community — and as Buncombe County’s first justice services director, she intends to turn innovative ideas into action aimed at eliminating barriers within both the local criminal justice system and the broader community.
For the past three years, Iheanacho has served as the county’s justice resources coordinator, leading the implementation of a $1.75 million Safety and Justice Challenge grant from the MacArthur Foundation and helping establish the local Justice Resource Center. Now, she’s taking on a more advisory role that will include coordinating such related components as the Family Justice Center and pretrial services, to help ensure that these types of assistance are equally available to all community members. Xpress spoke with Iheanacho recently about her new job and what she sees as the department’s initial priorities.
Xpress: Congratulations on the new position! Tell us about the role you’re taking on.
Tiffany Iheanacho: I’m still helping support the Justice Resource Advisory Council with goals and objectives, such as safely reducing the jail population. We’ll also start providing more support and coordination with youth initiatives. We already have a functioning body, the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, but our department will be able to provide them with some more support. Through the authority of the state, Calvin Hill, our chief district court judge, wants us to start a local School Justice Partnership, so that is something that we’ll also be taking on. [Editor’s note: Iheanacho subsequently clarified that the partnership has already been established, Hill is leading it and her department will be providing support services.]
What first made you interested in this type of work? What led you to this position?
It’s not a position that most folks hear about or aspire to. I studied criminal justice in undergrad, and understanding the structural inequities that exist has always been a big component in how we address change and give folks the resources they need to be successful. I think it’s just a natural fit with my passion for helping others. I love visioning goals and supporting staff to achieve the work that they need to do to help others.
As you’re setting up this department, what are your priorities and goals for the next few months?
Luckily, a lot of stuff is already underway. A lot of the centers are established, so it’s really making sure that they have the infrastructure they need and that we’re working more collaboratively with the same mission and a uniting goal. I’m also helping to support staff and the new initiatives they will take on. Things in the foreseeable future would include building out our public-facing dashboards and doing more community engagement, so the community is involved in our process and informed of what we’re doing both within the department and across the county.
How have the recent Black Lives Matter protests and increased worldwide attention on the justice system impacted the work that you and your department are doing?
It’s hard for me to say. Yes, I think it helped push some change. The more awareness of any cause makes it more likely for change to happen. We recognize that we’re in the business of serving all; we just have to be more intentional about serving marginalized populations that are often overlooked or not equitably served because they’re not represented in the conversation.
Black people are represented in a disproportionate way both in our jail and when it comes to gun violence, and we recognize that a lot of that is rooted in structural and institutional racism. The disproportionate makeup in our jail is not reflective of our individual justice stakeholders, but it’s reflective of our achievement gap in the Asheville City Schools, the issues of redlining and urban renewal, the taking of resources such as land and the limited economic opportunities for African Americans. All these things lead to the disproportionate makeup in our jail.
But there are things we can do in the criminal justice system to mitigate that, and this new awareness is something that we had been working toward internally — things like having discussions about how to build trust with communities, working with the district attorney’s office to expand the criteria for diversion programs to make them more accessible for African Americans, working with the Asheville Police Department and the new police chief, and understanding how policing in certain communities leads to disproportionate interactions with law enforcement.
If there’s someone in Asheville who doesn’t know about the work your department is doing, what would you tell them about the resources that are available?
We’re here to serve. If you’re someone who is impacted by intimate partner violence, we have services and resources to hold those individuals accountable and to get you the support you need to reduce the impact of the trauma. If someone has been involved in or charged with a crime, we’re here to help support them through that process. If their charges are able to be diverted, or if their charge is severe but they need assistance in the jail with mental health and behavioral health services, we’re here. If someone is reentering from prison, we have resources to help them get supported.
What else would you like people to know about your work?
The Safety and Justice Challenge grant is up for renewal. We did reduce the jail population, but now we need to work on sustainability. We talk weekly about how to reduce existing disparities. We need to improve processes by weeding out as many barriers and biases as possible. There are white and Black people with a similar background who are charged with a similar crime, and yet the Black person may stay in jail for a longer period of time. We need to understand how and why these patterns are occurring. It’s not easy to see all of the nuances.
Do you think Asheville City Council’s recent vote to begin exploring reparations will impact the work you’re doing?
I’m not sure I can speak about how this will impact our work, but I’m excited to see how we can be a part of the solution. I’m also excited to see what innovative ideas can come from any of these initiatives that we’re taking on to reduce and eliminate racial disparities in our community.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to achieving greater equity within the local justice system?
The Justice Resource Advisory Council, for which I provide support, recently voted to declare racism as a public safety emergency. And they, with the support of the Racial Equity Workgroup, listed some action steps that would yield results, including making sure we train criminal justice stakeholders on historical perspectives — how we got here, implicit bias — and that the criminal justice stakeholders, or just the county in general, look for innovative and creative ways to reduce the disparity. We hope to look across the nation for the best practices and what people have done and implement it locally. I think the justice system as we know it plays a small role in repairing the harm done to communities of color.
It’s not easy to see all of the nuances.