Friday, June 22, 2018

Reversing mass incarceration brick by brick: Podcast features #cjreform planks proposed to the Texas Democratic Party platform

Having produced a special podcast promoting #cjreform planks in the Texas state GOP party platform, it's only fair that Just Liberty return the favor for the Dems.  Here's a discussion among Democrats and liberal reformers about justice-reform planks being proposed to the Democratic platform.

What are the key justice priorities for Democratic constituencies this year? Reform leaders say transparency and accountability for police misconduct, rolling back mass incarceration and the drug war, and eliminating regressive government policies that mainly harm the poor.

This special episode promotes reform planks proposed to the Texas state Democratic platform in 2018 via local precinct resolutions. It features original music and interviews with state Rep. Gene Wu, Austin Justice Coalition executive director Chas Moore, as well as Sukyi McMahon and Kathy Mitchell with Just Liberty.



Steven Michael Seys said...

Something to address in the next session ought to be the post incarceration plan to fail that Texas has established and operated for the last several decades. It's a matter of public record that most parolees who are reincarcerated for parole violations have not committed any new offence, it's just a failure to find work or pay some fees. Since most parolees are forbidden by law from practicing their former occupation and have obtained no marketable skills that can be used legally in Texas, they won't be able to work at a job that will pay enough to cover expenses as well at the exorbitant fees charged by the Texas parole system.

Gunny Thompson said...

Can You say: "Extortion?"

Steve Gordon said...

This is my first time to post to GFB, and I count it a privilege. I am a FIP (formerly-incarcerated person) who has had the great privilege to lead a post-incarceration community-based project in Tarrant County. Through the great work of the Tarrant County Reentry Coalition, from 2013-2017, we built out a reentry-friendly community in the Fort Worth area that was so effective that we won the Texas Governor's Award for best reentry program for 2017. And our initiative was very unique in that it was designed, led, and staffed by FIP's.

I say all that to say that I know first-hand about returning home from prison and what former prisoners in Texas encounter when they come home. Since Steven Seys brings up particular barriers to reentry, I would like to address them specifically.

"...most parolees who are reincarcerated for parole violations have not committed any new offense, it's just a failure to find work or pay some fees..."

When the US Dept. of Justice did their study on prison overcrowding that led to the Justice Reinvestment projects around the country, they found that the #1 source for overcrowding is "technical revocations of supervision". This means that the parolee's parole status was revoked and the person was sent back to prison for a technical violation, NOT a new crime. This typically takes the form of a Parole Officer (PO) giving them a stipulation such as "don't be with your girlfriend" as a condition of their parole. (PO's can add stipulations over-and-above what the judge or the parole board can add.) Then, the PO catches the man with his girlfriend and revokes him and sends him back to prison.

Again, this was the #1 source of prison overcrowding in America - PO's revoking parolees, NOT for a new crime, or even a failed drug or alcohol test, but over something arbitrary and punitive. The DOJ did a test in Phoenix and found that simply by training PO's to be more rehabilitative, less punitive, and more focused on the success of the individual, rather than their failure, it made a HUGE impact on reducing the number of parole violations and saved the state of Arizona tens of millions of dollars a year. (When the Feds rewarded Arizona by continuing to send 50% of the money they would have sent, to be applied toward further criminal justice system reforms, the Justice Reinvestment movement was born.)

So, in my opinion, it is not "failure to find work" that triggers the revocation. Texas Parole typically does NOT have as a parole stipulation "must maintain work at all times" (as many other states do have). We found them to generally be very concerned about helping their parolees find work and the PO's went out of their way to channel them toward employment.

Similarly, "failure to pay some fees" does not typically trigger a parole violation. Texas Parole generally, in my opinion, cuts parolees a ton of slack in trying to get their fees paid. The PO is keenly aware of the dire poverty of the typical parolee and tends to work with them.

Obviously, there are two general types of PO's -- punitive and rehabilitative. The relationship between the PO and the parolee has as much to do with success and failure as any other single factor. When Parole has a parolee who is still in his or her "crime cycle" and living a criminal lifestyle, they will use "lack of work", "failure to pay fees", or any of a number of other stipulation violations to get that criminal off the streets and back into custody. But generally speaking, the majority of PO/Parolee relationships consist of a PO who is trying work for success and a parolee who is seeking a second chance and the opportunity to get reintegrated back into the community. Unfortunately, the press tends to only tell the stories of failure/crime/violence (it's about ratings, right?) and the general public never hears of the tens of thousands of Texas success stories every year.

Steve Gordon said...


"Since most parolees are forbidden by law from practicing their former occupation..." Here, Steven Seys is referring to the many licensure restrictions in Texas statute. Licensed professionals in Texas, from pest control to morticians, have their licenses automatically revoked when they are convicted of a felony. Most people don't know that these can be restored after the person completes their sentence and applies for a reinstatement. (They must wait a certain period of time, prove good character, etc. but licenses can be restored.) My first point is that this antiquated system should be reformed. Other states are making it a key point of justice reform. But, I also need to point out that only a small fraction of convicted felons in Texas prisons were licensed professional "anythings" before they were convicted. This is not the huge barrier to post-incarceration employment that people think it is. Does it affect some? Of course. Should it be reformed? Yes. But it is not driving the rampant unemployment.

We found that the main cause of unemployment among adults who were just released is that they have adopted a negative (and powerful) mindset that says, "No one will hire me. I'll never find a good job. I'll never make it." This has been brainwashed into them by television, the news, their peers, and society in general. We found that most were not willing to put for the effort, expecting to fail, when there were many, many employers looking for workers, employers who either did not care about people's backgrounds (e.g., the meat-packing plant) or were intentionally wanting to give people a second chance (e.g. Brewed Coffee Shop in Fort Worth).

We taught our clients "Get you 'A' job while you're looking for 'THE' job!" We taught them that $8.50 an hour is better than "no-fifty" an hour. We taught that the food services industry is ALWAYS HIRING (our two favorite words!) and how to leverage that first job into a better-paying second job. We taught them to define their living wage (the amount that they needed to live on) and to persevere until they got there. (In Fort Worth, it averages about $13.50 an hour but depends on the individual, obviously.) We had 115 employers who would hire people straight out of prison, up to $17 an hour!

Truck driving was our #1 career for FIP's to get a living wage job immediately upon returning home. Texas is the only prison system in America where a man or woman can get their CDL truck driver's license while incarcerated and get some EXPERIENCE too! (Low-security-level inmates are allowed to drive trucks for the prison system once they gain their CDL.) Our findings were that approximately 80% of those coming out of prison with their CDL already had truck-driving experience because of driving for the prison or because they were truck-drivers BEFORE THEY WENT IN! The trucking employers were thrilled, due to the huge need for CDL truck drivers in north Texas.

So, the question is, can the Texas Legislature do some things to make post-incarceration reintegration better? Sure. But remember, they've already passed laws removing the liability from employers who hire felons and apartments who rent to felons. There are some other issues to be addressed, especially the need for better resource coordination among communities and state agencies, but at the end of the day, you can't legislate reentry success. It takes a COMMUNITY to reintegrate those who have returned after losing everything, and a "restorative" justice mindset (rather than just a punitive one).

Steve Gordon said...

(final part)

Finally, can Texas Parole do some things to make post-incarceration reintegration better? YES! #1 is teach PO's to focus on parolee success rather than failure. #2 is to work hard to keep struggling parolees in the community and only send back the ones who are proving that they did not "get it" and insist on remaining criminals instead of restored citizens. (Remember, it should not be a crime to be poor!) #3 is to open up the "parole culture" to more accountability and community involvement so that PO's that are working against success can be weeded out and replaced with those who want to improve the community through long-term positive outcomes.