Travis County has a long way to go before its criminal justice system matches its progressive reputation, according to a report released Thursday by a local advocacy group.
African-Americans booked into the county jail spend more time behind bars than whites charged with the same crime, said the analysis by Grassroots Leadership, a community organizing group that focuses largely on immigrant rights and reforming the criminal justice system.
At a press conference held in front of the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, speakers from a variety of organizations described the findings of the report as evidence of persistent racism in the local criminal justice system.
“While class inequality, and the inability to pay bail, undoubtedly feeds into these numbers, racial discrimination must also be an important factor, if not the primary (factor),” said Chris Harris, a data analyst for Grassroots Leadership who compiled the data in the report.
The report included eight demands of elected officials and law enforcement, including ending arrests for low-level traffic offenses, such as driving with an invalid license, ending arrests for possession of less than four ounces of marijuana and assigning inmates defense counsel within 48 hours of arrest.
The group also urged the county to develop a “more robust” pretrial diversion program in which people are offered the chance to avoid prosecution in exchange for meeting certain requirements, such as counseling.
Finally, Grassroots demands that the county compile and report data on the jail population and that it establish a “criminal justice community oversight group with decision-making authority led by those most impacted by over-policing and incarceration.”
The speakers implored the public to put pressure on elected officials and hold those who fail to act accountable in elections.
“We’re going to show up to these ballot boxes like we show up to the club,” quipped Lewis Conway Jr., an organizer with Grassroots Leadership involved with the Texas Advocates for Justice program, which seeks to engage formerly incarcerated people in the political process.
Texas allows those convicted of felonies to vote once they have completed their sentence, including probation. However, many people with criminal records assume that they never regain the right to vote, Conway Jr. explained in an interview. Part of his job is getting people to understand when their voting rights are restored and, more importantly, convincing them that their vote matters.
“Voting is power; organizing is power,” he said. “You don’t win because you’re right; you win because you’re strong. And that’s our problem right now. We’re not strong politically.”