HOUSTON – The discussion around criminal justice reform in Harris County is complex and often heated. Stakeholders disagree on what that change should look like and how to go about it. The issue of how to handle repeat offenders is a major sticking point.
According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, more than 70,000 people return to the community from Texas prisons each year. More than 1 million people cycle through Texas county jails according to the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University.
But when they return to society, formerly incarcerated people often struggle with a lack of access to jobs, housing and getting help for issues that didn’t go away during their incarceration like treatment for addiction and mental health issues.
Dr. Howard Henderson, founding director of TSU’s Center for Justice Research says often communities are not prepared to receive people who are recently released from jail or prison.
“A lot of them are going back into the community, but no one’s giving them an opportunity. And so for opportunity, you need to be able to say, ‘Listen, we’ll hire you. We’ll employ you, will find you adequate housing.’ We’re trying to call for people to begin to collaborate between the public health space and the traditional criminal justice space and to begin to align to help these individuals, reduce the chances of going back to prison,” he said.
Preparing detainees and inmates for release is the focus of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Reentry program.
According to HCSO, 80% of inmates who go through the county’s jail end up re-incarcerated. But for people who go through the jail’s reentry programs, that number is only 30%.
“It’s not a rehabilitative community but the people here need rehabilitation,” said Jennifer Herring, the managing director of the program.
She joined the sheriff’s office in 2013 and created the current programs that have a range of focuses from specializations in addiction to groups specialized for inmates who have a history of prostitution or may be victims of human trafficking, incarcerated mothers and veterans.
“Our goal is to move people out of here better than they came. Our job is to help people to decide that they want to change and the only way you can do that is by bringing in the greatest force of change and that’s love,” Herring said.
U.S. Navy veteran Zachary LeBlanc is one of the reentry program’s success stories.
“My life was broken. I was suffering from PTSD and depression and didn’t know it. I started using drugs as a way of self-medication and before I knew it I was in jail,” he said.
While serving time for robbery, he joined the jail’s Stars and Stripes program for veterans.
“It was a Godsend. The program offered me an opportunity to fix myself to see what was wrong that I didn’t know how to fix,” Herring said.
Specialty courts are another effort to break the cycle of incarceration.
“This is where you are going to a court that is seeking to figure out why you keep reappearing in the criminal justice system and to stop you by helping you,” explained former Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, who is now president and CEO of Justice Forward, a non-profit group that funds programs for people going through the programs like drug court.
Sydrena Tufts, 51, said the Success Through Addiction Recovery drug court, known as STAR, saved her life. She was an addict and alcoholic for 21 years and was incarcerated three times serving a total of nearly 8 years behind bars.
“I was like ‘God you know I’m really tired of living like this. I can’t keep going on like this. I can’t keep doing this. I just really need some help’ and a couple weeks later, I got arrested again,” Tufts recalled.
But this time instead of a sentence, she was offered another chance.
After 2.5 years of weekly court appearances and probation meetings, near-daily drug testing and treatment for her addiction and mental health, she graduated from the STAR program.
“I had never completed anything in my life so completing the drug court program was very important for me,” she said.
She’s been sober for 13 years and now works as a recovery coach in the Harris District Court system.
“What better way to give back and to show individuals that I’m living proof that the program works?” she said.
But even with criminal cases completed and getting clean, people often face obstacles on the road to a fresh start, which can put them in danger of re-incarceration.
“I couldn’t find a job,” recalled Susan Freeman. A judge dismissed her first-degree felony drug charges, but they remained on her record, impacting her ability to work and find adequate housing.
She recently was able to get the cases wiped from her criminal history with the help of Lone Star Legal Aid, which provides the service for free to people who qualify.
“It’s like you’re walking around with a scarlet letter on you, but I think this gives people a fair chance,” said LSLA attorney Fallon Hamilton who worked on Freeman’s case.
The Center for Justice Research’s latest report, titled “Save Black Lives: Race, COVID-19 and Criminal Justice,” shows that race-neutral responses to the pandemic within the criminal legal system are ineffective, and how they cause harm to Black communities. Read that full report below:
The Civil Matters in Criminal Justice Project assists low-income Texans by providing free legal services focusing on the issues involving post-incarceration “re-entry” into the community for individuals with criminal histories and at-risk youth in school disciplinary violations.
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