Cracks in Texas' criminal justice system

Photo by Kitsadakron Pongha

We can now add Michael Brown, Rumain Brisbon, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice to the list of men (and boys) of color killed by police over altercations that never should have escalated the way they did. While much of the discussion about these tragedies has understandably centered on our criminal justice system and race, we’ve sometimes overlooked the more concrete connection between the justice system and poverty.

That our criminal justice system is closely entwined with poverty isn’t a new revelation. But these recent episodes across the U.S. are a reminder that we should be working vigorously to disentangle and solve these issues in Texas.

In our state, as in many others, everything from our marijuana laws, to our system of bail, to our process for expunging a criminal record all conspire to render large parts of our communities unemployable and outcast. This system disproportionately affects poor and minority communities the most, condemning people to a life of limited economic and social opportunity, discrimination and misery.

These small injustices add up, sending ripples throughout entire communities and feeding the cycle of poverty and crime. If, for instance, you were accused of a crime and didn’t have the resources to hire a lawyer to defend you, how would you find one to fight to have your record expunged? Then there are the perverse incentives that force people without enough money for bail to sit in custody while they await trial. How many days would you be willing to stay in jail until that plea deal started to look good? On top of that, in an age in which people’s most private business is often a mouse click away, it doesn’t take much digging to find out if someone has an arrest record or not. Whether or not they’re guilty is often beside the point.

For individuals caught in this cycle, the cost is high; for society, it’s even higher. Think about how much we lose in terms of family and social stability when we brand people with a scarlet letter. It isn’t just hurting their economic opportunity and ours, but also perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

When the 2015 Texas legislative session begins next month, lawmakers should start looking at ways to solve these problems. A system this broken won’t be fixed overnight, but we owe it to ourselves to start addressing the roots of the problem. We can begin with simple solutions: Make record expungement easier, review and dismantle the laws that saddle nonviolent petty offenders with a bleak future rather than an opportunity to succeed, examine our grand jury system and make sure that minorities are represented in the process.

As we watch the consequences of our inability — or unwillingness — to address poverty and crime unspool from New York to Ferguson, it’s time to thoroughly investigate the root causes of these problems. Texas, a majority-minority state, is in many ways a model for how diversity can be a tremendous strength. Now it’s up to us to also show the rest of the country how to confront and resolve the threats to that strength presented by a criminal justice system that contributes to both poverty and, yes, racism.  

If nothing else, let’s at least start having the tough conversation about these issues that we’ve been avoiding for far too long. The costs of keeping quiet are mounting. 

Mustafa Tameez

Political consultant