Jan. 25, 2015 -- Improving the criminal justice system by making it more cost-efficient, mass incarcerations in local jails caused by the pretrial process, and the case of Sandra Bland were discussion points at a symposium hosted by the University of Houston Law Center’s Criminal Justice Institute and Health Law & Policy Institute.
The symposium, “Police, Jails and Vulnerable People: New Strategies for Confronting Today’s Challenges,” was presented in collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Panelists and members of the audience included five Texas legislators, law enforcement officers, jailers, representatives from the mental health profession, court administrators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, pretrial services representatives, and criminologists.
State Sen. John Whitmire ‘80, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee with oversight of the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems, was the symposium’s keynote speaker. He said the criminal justice system can improve with fewer incarcerations of non-violent offenders and that he is prioritizing the bail bonding process for overhaul. When referencing the Sandra Bland case, Whitmire said the system must improve when documenting the mental health of offenders and what happens when people arrive at jail.
“We’re dealing with a system today that is broken,” he said. “We’re locking up way too many people that do not need to be incarcerated in jail or prison.”
“What the symposium taught is that criminal justice stakeholders today can adopt best practices so as to make their part of the process work effectively as part of a larger system,” said Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute. “From policing to jail administration, we can make fundamental changes in how we decide who to arrest and what happens to those people once they enter the criminal justice system. The Sandra Bland tragedy stands as a stark reminder that the status quo simply will not do.”
Bland, 28, committed suicide in the Waller County jail on July 13, 2015, three days after being arrested near Prairie View University following a routine traffic violation.
Dr. Cedric Alexander, chief of police of DeKalb County, GA was the opening speaker. His talk titled “Policing Issues in the 21st Century,” called for better management, recruiting and training and encouraged law enforcement officers to build relationships in their communities. Thompson moderated the “Ethical and Practical Considerations in Pretrial Detention” discussion that featured Rebecca Bernhardt of the Texas Fair Defense Project, Dr. Marie VanNostrand of Luminosity Consulting and Jon Wool of the Vera Institute.
Jail suicide prevention expert Lindsay M. Hayes pointed to statistics that jail suicides have decreased nationally over the past 20 years in a panel on jail safety. However, Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas’ law and public affairs schools, said there is still a need for improvement with 13 deaths in Texas county jails in the past four months. Kate Eves, an ombudsman for all prisons in the U.K. and Wayne Dicky, a jail administrator for Brazos County also participated.
The symposium concluded with a Texas Legislative roundtable that included state Reps Garnet Coleman, James White and Gene Wu and state Senator Konni Burton. The discussion was moderated by Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune. Among topics discussed was the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana in Texas.
Other participating institutions included the Earl Carl Institute of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, the University of Houston-Downtown Department of Criminal Justice, the University of Houston-Clear Lake Department of Criminal Justice, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at Austin Law School, the SMU Dedman School of Law and the South Texas College of Law.
“The incredible thing about this symposium is that we brought together all the people who have the ability to bring about change,” said Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute. “These are people who usually work in their confined spheres without the opportunity to appreciate how their work relates to the rest of the system. The high quality of the program attracted over 250 people from all over the state and as far away as El Paso. From the feedback we got, I believe the attendees gained invaluable insights on the cutting-edge practices that they can implement in their agencies.”