I Have a Real Sense Each Day That the Things I’m Working on are Actually Going to Result in Meaningful Policy Change
by Douglas Smith, #LwC2018
August 9, 2018
“I am the Senior Policy Analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC).”
These days, the policy that’s taking most of my time and attention is a project we’re doing around state jails. The state jail system in Texas was created in 1993 and was supposed to divert individuals charged with low-level drug offenses from long sentences in the state prisons. It was envisioned that these 4th degree felonies would be handled through probation or community rehabilitation, and if incarceration were warranted, it would be in a rehabilitative setting followed by supervision on the back end. But because the state didn’t provide adequate funding for those services, the state jails became a dumping ground for people with untreated addiction and mental health issues. On any given day, more than 9,000 men and women are serving time in the fourteen state jails. Most of them spend close to a year inside and then are released without any reentry support. Not surprisingly, people in this category have the highest recidivism rates and most will wear handcuffs again.
Our goal is to lower these state jail commitments and to make sure that the communities most impacted have a voice in developing reforms. We have a law providing local probation departments with the opportunity to request funding to develop Commitment Reduction Plans. But we don’t want to leave this process solely in the hands of the criminal justice actors. So I’ve been holding a series of stakeholder meetings where we invite the “system actors”—prosecutors, judges, sheriffs, and probation chiefs—to sit down with the “community actors”—formerly incarcerated people, reentry service providers and mental health folks. We are shifting the conversation away from incarceration and towards what the community wants: more drug treatment, harm reduction case management, and mental health services. Along with another LwC alumnus I recently participated in a successful grassroots campaign to prevent the construction of a $97 million women’s facility at the local jail in Austin. Instead, we got the county to commit to diverting people to community service.
Working in this field wasn’t something I dreamed would ever happen. I thought I’d shut all those doors as I descended into drug addiction, mental health issues and ultimately criminal activity. My story is a little atypical in that prior to my incarceration I’d already achieved a Master’s degree in Social Work and had worked a couple of legislative sessions for various members of the Texas House of Representatives. I had also taught at the University of Texas as an adjunct instructor and was pretty well versed in policy. But after my life went off the rails I assumed I wouldn’t be able to return to the policy arena or even social work.
When I got out of prison I encountered the usual barriers to employment for someone with a criminal record, and I eventually found a job working in a warehouse for $9 an hour. Then I learned that a friend of mine had been appointed to the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable. I wrote her an email about how difficult reentry was and I said if this was what I was going through I couldn’t imagine what it was like for someone who lacked the privileges I had. Then I pressed send. She read it and within days I was introduced to the TCJC and offered a job. Three days later I was testifying before a House committee. That was three years ago.
I have a real sense each day that the things I’m working on are actually going to result in meaningful policy change. The Leading with Conviction training is reinforcing the importance of building strong partnerships with grassroots leadership. It has helped me to be a better leader, lean into conflict, and continually improve by seeking feedback. I had a conversation with a funder recently and he said he wasn’t sure which he was more excited about, my policy work or the fact that I was on this journey of leadership.