Local Event Begins Push for Criminal Justice Reform

UTSA last night opened a conversation about unequal justice in Texs courts, which is something Jason Hernandez is intimately familiar with, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Hernandez, who lives in the Dallas suburb of McKinney, was released from prison after service more than 17 years for a non violent drug offense.  He was granted clemency by President Obama, who also expressed his concern about inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Hernandez told News Radio 1200 WOAI one place where changes have to be made is in the quality of the public defenders who provide legal representation for low income defendants, which is most of them.

Some counties have professional public defenders, in other cases, judges simply corral some unfortunate lawyer who happens to be walking past the courtroom.

Either way, Hernandez says defendants seldom get high quality representation."They are getting the money and trying to plead people down," he said.  "That is why the federal system has, I think, a 95% conviction rate."

Other issues discussed last night night's discussion sponsored by the UTSA College of Public Policy included bail bond reform.Hernandez says he saw many people when he was in custody awaiting trial who were incarcerated, many for years, simply because they couldn't put up the bail bonds which were demanded by the courts.

"$50,000, $100,000 bond, they can't make them, they stay in jail, sometimes end of losing their jobs and losing their children to CPS."

Hernandez says he knew several people during his 17 year stretch in a federal prison near Beaumont who pled guilty simply because they were in jail anyway because they couldn't pay their bond.

A court judgement in Harris County earlier this year demanded a stop to 'bond schedules,' for various crimes, and ordered courts to take into consideration the defendant's ability to pay.

Another proposal being discussed is what is called 'Ban the Box,' a process which is being adopted by some employers, including the City of San Antonio. 

 "Ban the Box' removes the question in the initial job application about whether the person has been 'convicted of a crime.'

"Nine times out of ten, they don't call you back," Hernandez said.  "Usually the way you get a job is by meeting people face to face, and that doesn't happen, because you are eliminated in the first application process."

Hernendez says the only way he got a job when he got out of prison was because an employer told him that he had gotten a break when he got out of prison, and he was ready to take a chance on Hernandez.  He says there were many people in prison with him who were back behind bars because, after they got out, they couldn't find gainful employment and the only way they could survive was by committing crimes.

Other issues that are involved in criminal justice reform include allowing people to enter drug and alcohol treatment programs rather than prison, and the link between education attainment and the likelihood of incarceration.

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