In the Lone Star State, a person’s path through the justice system is rarely guided by justice. It’s guided by politics.
A young person of color fears when a police car follows them, knowing some police scour the streets looking for an excuse to turn on their red and blues. A person short on cash can’t make bail, calling the jail their temporary home – a rich person cuts a check and walks immediately. A judge is facing a fierce reelection campaign from a “tough on crime” competitor. His defendant’s case becomes dead on arrival.
In case you hadn’t noticed… Texas has a problem – a criminal justice problem, a public safety problem, a mass incarceration problem, a humanity problem. The Texas criminal justice system is archaic, and this state is falling behind on progress.
As part of our series for young people demystifying why the legislature acts the way it does, and why clear-cut issues to us aren’t really clear-cut issues to politicians, we’re diving into the topic of community-centered public safety, including incarceration and policing, two seemingly similar topics with very different trajectories in Texas.
Why are so many people in Texas imprisoned? What’s up with the sudden rise of police in border communities? Why aren’t cops being held accountable for their crimes?
One main answer lies in how politicians have approached the issues. It’s been the proverbial tale of two cities, between the incarceration and policing systems.
Let’s be clear — Texas has a lot to fix regarding its jailing system.
Texas has an incarcerated population of approximately 150,000, more than any other state in the country. In the Dallas County Jail, of the approximately 6,500 people incarcerated, over 70% are detained pretrial, while others are saddled with misdemeanor convictions. Only one out of every three state-run prisons even have air conditioning.
The problem came from various causes, notably the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s. People were being sentenced to dramatically long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, causing incarcerated populations to grow steadily. The problem was made worse by state policy decisions to lengthen prison stays behind bars.
For all of the problems the prison system faces, the good news is that the issue is slowly but surely being addressed in the state legislature.
While more people are still being jailed than are being released, and formerly incarcerated people attempting to re-enter society with a sense of independence is still next to impossible, recent legislation has sought to reduce these prison populations, cut youth incarceration rates, and establish treatment and diversion programs. While much more needs to be done to right the wrongs in the prison system, there has been progress on the issue, due largely in part to bipartisan efforts over the last few years.
The same simply cannot be said about the policing system in Texas.
Police are focusing huge amounts of effort on arresting individuals who are not a real threat to the community and public safety. These efforts have targeted low-level offenses like marijuana possession, loitering, bicycling on the sidewalk, and sex work – resulting in harsh penalties for minor infractions that disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities.
Rather than fixing the issues, power-hungry politicians have found political upside to vilifying efforts that aim to divest from over-policing and redirect funds, responsibility, and interactions to other services and resources.. They’ve identified many leaders in this fight as threats to communities and have relied heavily on fear-mongering as a way to justify police militarization, especially in border communities, and hyperfixation on over-policing communities of color.
Efforts to transform our system have been met with fierce hostility from out-of-touch politicians, starkly different from the path prison reform has seen. Efforts to hold police accountable and end qualified immunity have been blocked and used as political fodder. The effect is no real justice and no real peace for those harmed physically and economically by racist policing and those who have to live in constant fear of it.
These two different paths show that positive change can be made, but only if we work together. And there needs to be some serious changes made.
It’s time to overhaul the racist policing system in Texas and build a system that works for and with the people, not against them. It’s evident that not every community problem should be left in the hands of police, who are often not qualified or properly equipped to handle every issue. We envision a system that is community-centered, with non-police forms of public safety and community services overseen by counselors, social workers and mental healthcare providers.
The legislature needs to pass enforceable protections against profiling, limit law enforcement interaction with federal immigration authorities, stop the criminalization of poverty, reduce the number of police in schools, and finally end qualified immunity for police, allowing the public to hold cops accountable. Too many lives have been lost and families broken at the hands of police violence and brutality.
The need to re-evaluate inflated police budgets is also long overdue, meaning cities should opt into public resources and out of police militarization efforts, putting a true investment in public safety and community care to create the vibrant communities we deserve.
For our incarceration system, Texas needs to continue its push towards humanity and rehabilitation.
Texas needs fewer arrests and less for-profit practices that drive mass incarceration, helping to keep nonviolent, low-level offenders out of costly prisons. This would include ending criminal penalties, expanding the use of “cite-and-release” for minor offenses, and eliminating cash bail so that wealth doesn’t determine a person’s punishment.
Furthermore, Texas should be a leader in preventing youth incarceration by supporting young people with resources and diverting them away from juvenile jails. A good start will be to “Finish the 5,” closing the five remaining youth prisons in Texas and investing in those kids instead.
The state needs to treat its incarcerated population with dignity and humanity. We can do this by putting air conditioning in all state prisons, creating polling locations in prisons to allow eligible citizens to vote, and helping released persons as they transition back into society find jobs and housing.
Finally, and most important, Texas needs politicians who are serious about making life better for its people. Enough with the demonization of change, enough with the petty political stunts, enough with governing only to help bolster a reelection. We need to work together or else our state and country’s past mistakes will become our communities’ continued and exacerbated nightmares.
As we often say, young people are the moment, the movement, and the powerful future. Day in and day out, they’re leading the charge in demanding accountability from elected officials and advocating for the issues that matter most to communities. Young people in Texas are making it clear that it’s time for our leaders to shift their attitudes, focus, and funding toward community-centered support and resources, to reduce incarceration rates and the racial inequities that disproportionately impact people of color within the criminal punishment system.
Now, more than ever, we need state leaders to take action to change the inherently racist criminal legal system that tears communities apart. Whether it be the juvenile or adult justice system, Texans deserve to live in a state where our values and well-being are prioritized.
Andrea Flores is the MOVE Texas Advocacy Organizer