A new survey by the bipartisan Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition shows a majority of Republican primary voters support criminal justice reforms in the state.
According to a document on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s website, the agency’s budget for fiscal year 2018 was slightly more than $3.3 billion, with more than $2.7 billion dedicated to the incarceration of felons.
The coalition specifically wanted to pinpoint what GOP voters wanted to see with criminal justice reforms.
“We’ve all known that at the left end of the spectrum, among our Democratic colleagues and friends, there has always been strong support for criminal justice reform,” chief strategist for the coalition said.
One of the questions respondents were asked was whether they supported or opposed increasing job training programs for people in jail or prison, such as education and vocational training. Ninety-one percent of respondents said they were in favor of this.
“What we know is that education and work is what keeps them from going back to prison,” Traci Berry, chief learning and engagement officer for Goodwill of Central Texas, said.
Goodwill of Central Texas is already working with people coming out of incarceration and has a grant-funded program called LifeLaunch, which provides occupational training, tuition assistance, educational opportunities and assistance with living and job placement services.
During the 85th legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to have the Texas Department of Criminal Justice establish an educational and vocational training pilot program by September 2019. The department will work with different groups to operate the pilot program in four locations. Currently, there hasn’t been funding allocated, but it’s expected legislators will discuss the issue in the next session.
According to the coalition, the program is expected to save the state more than $2 million during the first two years of the reentry pilot.
Rep. James White, R-Woodville, chair of the Texas House Corrections Committee, joined the coalition at its press conference Tuesday.
“Some of these strategies will yield savings,” he said. “You’ll be able to plow those savings back into the program… we need to continue talking to our local communities, so they can engineer strategies that are consistent with the values in their local communities.”
Lauren Johnson, criminal justice outreach coordinator for the ACLU of Texas, is hoping there will be an emphasis on expanding these opportunities to reach more women as well.
“I’ve spent time inside of prison – I’ve heard the stories of the women inside and I understand the root causes of what brings women into prison,” Johnson said. “Just because [programs] exist doesn’t mean everybody has access to it, so expansion of programming for the people we must incarcerate is necessary to prevent recidivism.”
Keeping families together and providing additional treatment services are critical to helping women leave the system stronger than they were compared to when they entered prison.
“There are children,” Johnson said. “There are older parents. There are all these different ways that women incarceration affects our entire community.
The Texas House Corrections Committee also met Tuesday to examine treatment options, services and programs available to women in the Texas criminal justice system.
Dr. Clint Carpenter, superintendent of the Windham School District, said they’ve been expanding their programs to include more STEM opportunities. Windham School District provides vocational training to more than 60,000 offenders in the state.
“We’re targeting those in high paying salaries at $12 to $18 an hour for all of our training, because we don’t feel like somebody making minimum wage and having a mark such as a felony conviction against them is really practical,” he said. “You can’t put your family back together on minimum wage.”
Carpenter says the hope is they can one day reach all offenders that are a part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities.
“While we do serve approximately 80 percent of everybody that is being released from the prison system, there certainly is a need to be able to serve near to 100 percent because these individuals need to be able to have an educational level that allows them to get a job and be successful when they’re coming into their communities,” he said.