Conversation to continue with another ‘Just Mercy’ panel

Panelists discuss the state of race relations and inequities in the justice system during the first community conversation inspired by the reading campaign for "Just Mercy," in May. Another panel discussion will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 8, at the Hancock County Public Library. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter) Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

GREENFIELD — The Hancock County League of Women Voters is hoping to continue a community conversation on race and the justice system inspired by its community read of the book “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, and will hold another panel event on the topic at the Hancock County Public Library.

The panel, titled “Just Mercy: The Conversation Continues,” will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 8. Panelists will include Michael Cunegin II, a retired police officer and former member of the Allen County Council; Indianapolis pastor Charles Neal; Fran Watson, director of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at IU McKinney School of Law; and Michelle Wade, a Hancock County prosecuting attorney.

Betty Tonsing, a board member of the League of Women Voters, will moderate the discussion. Tonsing said the first panel on the topic, which came after a screening of the film based on “Just Mercy,” didn’t feel long enough at 45 minutes.

“So many just felt that they had more to say,” she said.

The League of Women Voters initiated the community read of “Just Mercy,” Stevenson’s memoir about working as an attorney for death row prisoners in the deep South and the role racism plays in the justice system, with the goal of sparking a countywide conversation. Hundreds of copies of the book were distributed via libraries and other channels.

In addition to the first panel, the League of Women Voters held a “Teen Town Hall” inspired by the book for area high school students.

Tonsing said the project has been successful, but the conversation needs to continue because questions about how race impacts law enforcement and what a more equitable system would look like do not have easy answers.

In putting together a second panel, Tonsing said, the League of Women Voters wanted a group with diverse experiences. She said perspectives like that of Cunegin, a Black former police officer; and Neal, who is on the board of an organization that seeks to employ people recently released from prison, are valuable to hear from. So is Wade’s perspective as part of Hancock County’s own justice system.

Wade spoke as part of the teen panel and said it was a positive experience.

“The students presented us with very thoughtful questions about the current state of our justice system and the challenges outlined in the book,” she said. “I am hopeful that the discussion can continue next week with the community, and that I am able to speak of our county’s current judicial process. In many ways, it is different than that depicted in the book. I would like to convey, as discussed at the teen town hall, that empathy must be coupled with action to effect change.”

The event at the Greenfield library is free, and pre-registration is not required. The space can accommodate up to 100 people. The panelists will take questions from the floor. Tonsing said questions do not have to be directly related to the book, just civil and concise.

“I think it’s going to be a very interesting evening,” Tonsing said.

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What: A continued conversation about race and the justice system hosted by the League of Women Voters

When: 6 p.m. Thursday, July 8

Where: Hancock County Public Library in Greenfield

Attendance is free, and no pre-registration is required.