Two Juneauites go from anger to consensus on the criminal justice reform debate

When they first interacted at Juneau Reentry Coalition meetings, Sol Neely (left) and Kris Sell (right) couldn’t stand each other. (Photo by Scott Burton/KTOO)

How do adversaries become allies? For University of Alaska Southeast associate professor Sol Neely and retired Juneau police Lt. Kris Sell, it wasn’t easy.

The two clashed profoundly over criminal justice: the lieutenant, a boots-on-the-ground, “tough on crime” pragmatist; the professor, a justice reform educator and idealist.

They recently sat down at KTOO for a conversation explaining how they found agreement on this contentious issue.

I learned about their once-adversarial relationship from a Facebook post Neely recently wrote about Sell. To begin the conversation at KTOO, I asked Neely to read the post aloud. Here’s one of the meatier sections.

“We clashed severely. I couldn’t stand her, and she couldn’t stand me. She was ‘tough on crime’ and didn’t have any patience for somebody like me. Absolutely every time we met, I would shake with some blend of anger and frustration,” said Neely.

Sol Neely’s Facebook post. (Screenshot by Scott Burton/KTOO)

Neely is an associate professor of English at UAS. He also teaches inside Juneau’s Lemon Creek Correctional Center. He brings students from the university into the prison and studies literature and philosophy — often works with social and criminal justice themes.

Neely is also involved with the Juneau Reentry Coalition (JREC) — an organization focused on reducing recidivism by helping formerly incarcerated people rejoin society once they get out of prison. It was at early JREC meetings that Neely and Sell clashed.

“(I) had to spend what felt like countless hours with irritating people like Sol Neely who, as a philosophy professor, is kind of at the different end of the spectrum from the pragmatic way I am trying to address things,” said Sell.

Sell’s pragmatic way often meant sending people to prison as the solution to public safety. But over her twenty years on the force, she started to question that approach.

“I was arresting the same people over and over again. I was arresting members of the same family through generations,” said Sell.

In Alaska, close to two-thirds of formerly-incarcerated people commit additional crimes that often lead back to jail. Each time Sell’s arrestees went back, they lost more of their lives, like their home, their family…

“By the fifth or sixth arrest, they’re living in a moldy camper or a car in Juneau,” said Sell.

Listen to the entire conversation here:

Sell began to suspect that some of these individuals suffered from underlying issues, like untreated addiction and mental illness. She became more interested in alternative pathways, like more treatment, education and community support — ideas she was hearing from people like Sol Neely.

“He just keeps working away at people, like a glacier wearing away mountains. He just is relentless and hopeful, and he keeps showing up,” said Sell.

Neely said the learning went both ways. From Sell, he learned about what it was like for police officers on the streets. Like how people can get increasingly violent with each arrest. And how that violence could affect officers and other community members.

“We were both working in trenches, but different kinds of trenches,” said Neely.

But over the years, they’ve come to see they’re in the same trench with a shared vision. They both say criminal justice is too complicated to have a simple solution, and they both call for a community approach. But getting the community involved — and getting people to agree on solutions — will be challenging.

Sell’s been retired for over a year now, but she has hope.

A selfie taken in the KTOO studios. (Photo courtesy Sol Neely)

“I think if there’s any town that can have respectful discourse about this, it’s Juneau,” said Sell.

As for Neely, he hopes this story — how he and Sell went from “shaking with anger and frustration” to consensus — might be an example for other contentious community debates.

At the end of the conversation at KTOO, the two took a selfie together.

KTOO Public Media produced this short documentary about Neely’s classes inside the Lemon Creek Correctional Center:

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