Closing The Academic-Legislative Gap Will Benefit All Texans – OpEd

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By Howard Henderson and Olumuyiwa Soyele*

On the heels of Texas’ deadliest school shooting, where 19 elementary students and two teachers lost their lives, Texan’s have called for improving mental health services, gun reform, criminal justice reform, addressing budgetary concerns, and so much more. Texas legislators have their hands full as the 88th legislative session convenes, with more than 1600 bills already filled.  With a $32 billion budget surplus, Texas has a unique opportunity to tackle many of the state’s most urgent issues that will have dire consequences if unaddressed. For example, in 2021, Texas had the highest number of violent crimes and murders in the nation. Funds directed toward prevention and community supports have the power to reduce violence and incarceration, grow local economies, and improve mental health and overall well-being.

Simply put, the Texas Legislature is ill-equipped to take on these issues alone. That is not a critique on their ability but rather an acknowledgement of the amount of time and effort it takes to research, craft, debate, revise, and eventually pass meaningful legislation in several key areas. To make the most of this upcoming legislative session, policy-minded researchers and lawmakers must come together. Researchers must continue to examine solutions through a data-driven, policy-oriented lens and effectively  share these findings with legislators. At the same time, legislators should welcome the support that locally-oriented think tanks provide via community-informed research so that they are better able to solve Texas’ most pressing challenges.

‍We aim to do our part at the Center for Justice Research, a Texas Southern University effort devoted to researching, identifying, and supporting data-driven, cost-effective solutions that reduce disparities in the criminal legal system while improving public safety. 

Our research examining barriers to success for the criminal justice-involved demonstrates the possibility of research-supported policy. In March 2022, we published “An Analysis of Incarceration, Crime, Unemployment and Rural Spaces,” which found that a person’s history of incarceration is associated with post-release unemployment and child poverty regardless of that person’s race or rural vs. urban designation. Identifying the problem—in this case, negative employment outcomes resulting from prior incarceration—is only the first step. In effect, our research further supports a state and federal Clean Slate Initiative, which would increase the employment opportunities for people with prior non-violent arrests and convictions. This would minimize their subsequent criminal justice system involvement and reintroduce to the American economy the $87 million lost in gross domestic product as a result of shutting people with records out of the labor market.

Identifying problems and potential solutions, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers must then help lawmakers internalize and accept their findings—a skill that is both an art and a science. In a piece on converting health research to health policy, three academics explain that researchers are more likely to contribute to the enactment of the policy process if they understand the contexts of their fields. “Research does and should influence policy,” they write, “but simply producing rigorous and precise results about important problems is not enough to make it happen.” 

One method we use to assist lawmakers is partnering with other groups to raise awareness for data-driven solutions to criminal justice reform policies. For instance, we are proud members of Clean Slate Texas, a coalition of organizations, businesses, faith leaders, and individual Texans who support enacting a Clean Slate Act in Texas that would, among other things, expand access to criminal record management and clearing. As we head into this session, HB 252, HB 283, and HB 399 would achieve many of these aims.

Additionally, our report on Texas’ previous legislative session highlights our in-session work. We do our best to work closely with representatives and their staff to discuss priority bills, prepare talking points and documents for testimony, and direct members to evidence-backed actions. We aim to build on our advocacy from the previous session to help legislators enact even more meaningful policies in 2023.

Our solution-oriented research extends throughout the criminal justice space, ranging from destigmatizing mental health challenges to providing alternative housing opportunities for people with prior felony convictions. 

We are the only criminal justice research center housed at a Texas-based historically Black college or university that is laser-focused on reducing disparities and maintaining public safety. As highlighted by Clean State Texas, university-community based efforts are committed to helping lawmakers enact practical, cost-effective criminal justice reform. Countless lives are in the balance, and our precarious situation demands that Texas legislators understand how economic, social, political, and organizational realities impact their constituents.  

With inflation, rising crime, economic uncertainty, and myriad other issues, the Texas Legislature has a difficult session ahead. Legislators will also be racing against the clock as they will have less than 5 months to address all of these issues in what could be their only opportunity until 2025. Here at the Center for Justice Research, we strive to assist our state government by doing the gritty work to identify effective and culturally responsive solutions to criminal justice reform problems. Importantly, we provide this research with input from members of historically under-resourced communities and prioritize community engagement to further connect policymakers with their constituents. We are calling on lawmakers and researchers alike to join us in building bridges to collaboratively work toward a thriving Texas. 

*About the authors:

  • Howard Henderson, PhD is the founding director of the Center for Justice Research and Professor of Justice Administration at Texas Southern University. His research focuses on structural and cultural predictors of criminal justice system disparities.
  • Olumuyiwa Soyele, graduate assistant and administration of justice doctoral candidate at Texas Southern University.  His research is centered around disparities in the criminal justice system and identifying proven approaches to policing historically under resourced communities

Center for Justice Research

The Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University is devoted to culturally-responsive, data-driven solutions for an equitable criminal justice system.

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