Eliminating Disparities in
By Terri Allred
When Nikki Niles moved to Rochester eight years ago, she immediately felt like she was moving home. It reminded her of East Lansing, Michigan, her previous home. “Rochester has a small-town feel without being a small town,” Niles shares.
Just like East Lansing, Niles appreciates the opportunities for families and the focus on increasing diversity in Rochester. Really, the only problem with Rochester is that Michigan State isn’t here. As a die-hard fan and alumna, she looks forward to being able to travel back for games.
INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
Niles recently moved into the local spotlight when she was hired as the Olmsted County Diversity, Equity and Community Outreach team coordinator. However, she has been serving our community prior to this high-profile position. She has worked as a probation officer and supervisor in our county since 2012 and even helped develop and oversee Olmsted County’s pre-trial services program.
EXPANDED SERVICES: A VISION INTO REALITY
Niles’ new position oversees three programs. The first, the pre-trial services program, evaluates people who have been arrested using a validated risk assessment tool to determine who is safe to release pending criminal justice proceedings rather than hold in jail on bail. The bail system in Olmsted County, like many across the country, has traditionally held people who were arrested if they weren’t able to make bail, disproportionately affecting BIPOC and people of low socio-economic status. For people who can’t afford bail, this system created a host of problems, including lost connection with families, housing and jobs, prior to even being convicted of an alleged crime.
“The new program takes the ability to afford bail out of the equation, thereby maximizing release, public safety and a return to court,” Niles explains. For the people who aren’t able to make bail because of financial limitations, it can mean the difference between maintaining their lives and losing everything.
Niles also oversees a newly expanded Law Enforcement Liaison Team. One of her first tasks is to hire three additional social workers to join the community outreach worker who has been serving in this program for three years since it was established. The community outreach workers complement the work of law enforcement by bringing specialized training to help community members with mental health issues. With the expansion of the program, Niles hopes to also focus on chemical addition issues and homelessness/vagrancy, neither of which are really policing issues. When she was a patrol officer in Michigan, Niles says it would have been very helpful to have something like this to assist her.
Finally, Niles will supervise the Children of Incarcerated Parents Workgroup in Olmsted County. This program will address the needs of children who often experience bullying, anxiety and depression as a result of having an incarcerated parent. The program will also offer support to the guardians of those children. The vision of the program is to offer a holistic approach to support in school, at home and in the community. While the program is still under development, it will be an important part of helping to eliminate disparities in programming publicly delivered by community services.
ADDRESSING SYSTEMIC INEQUITIES
Niles envisions being able to address the systemic inequities, particularly for BIPOC members of our community. Often the initial call for help funnels people into the law enforcement system causing a noncriminal issue to snowball into something else. These programs will allow the criminal justice system to focus on issues related to crime. Ultimately, people will avoid being needlessly criminalized for public health, mental health or substance abuse problems.
She also realizes that some of the reparative work requires outreach and connection in the community. “I don’t expect people to come to our doors,” she explains, “especially in a global pandemic. Instead we will educate the community about what is available and be present in neighborhoods that have been identified as impoverished or disparate based on race.”