Criminal Justice in the South

Today’s guest post on criminal justice comes to us from Abby Reimer, a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism and a business minor at Kenan-Flagler. Incarceration disrupts the educational trajectory of young people, and erects barriers to employment and economic security. While funding for public education is cut in the South, state corrections spending continues to rise, exacerbating the challenge for communities trying to address low mobility.


In October 2015, President Obama headed to Charleston, W. Va., to launch a “criminal justice tour,” a high-profile spotlight on criminal justice reform across the country. It is significant that the tour started in the South, where the problems of America’s criminal justice system-racial inequity, harsh sentencing laws, and overcrowded prisons-are most visible and entrenched. In recent years, Southern states have joined the increasingly bipartisan effort to address prison overcrowding, high costs, and prisoner reintegration.
Prisons in the US are overcrowded following the stringent laws. A criminal must be put behind bars, but persons caught for crimes as simple as a DUI might also face imprisonment for as long as ten days in the States. In DUI cases there may or may not be causalities. Not every drink and drive leads to accidents, but the probability of getting caught by the cops is higher due to various obvious signs such as rash driving. If a person is convicted of the same due to a high blood alcohol level (BAC), it is highly likely that they would have to get in touch with a Phoenix DUI lawyer or someone of similar caliber in their vicinity. This might save the person involved from a possible prison conviction.

The Landscape

Like the rest of the country, the South has seen a significant drop in both violent and property crime during the last 20 years. From 2013 to 2014, the South saw a 5.9 percent drop in property crime and a 3 percent drop in violent crime, a slightly smaller decrease than the rest of the country. While decreasing, the South has a long history of being the U.S.’s most violent region. In 2012, the South accounted for 40.9 percent of violent crimes in the country, while its population makes up 37.4 percent of the country.

Nationwide, the drop in crime has been attributed to a smattering of factors: aging populations, decreased alcohol consumption and up to the mid-1990s, increased incarceration.

African Americans, in the nation as a whole and in the South, are overrepresented in all parts of the criminal justice system, from traffic stops to incarceration. In Alabama, Georgia, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, more than 60 percent of those serving life sentences are black, a rate shared by only four Northern states.

The South also carries the distinction of having the largest prison population in the country, almost doubling the incarceration rate in the Northeast. Louisiana is the world’s “prison capital,” incarcerating 1 in 75 adults, the highest rate in the world. However, prison populations have declined slightly in Southern states during the past few years, even as prison populations have grown in northern and western states.

Changes in Prison Population (2011-2014)

Map 1

Source: Brennan Center for Justice


Criminal reform in tough-on-crime states

Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Alabama are policy leaders in reducing prison populations. The recent reforms show a path forward for conservative, traditionally “tough-on-crime” states to tackle criminal justice reform. Leaders in the state emphasized cost savings and “common-sense” reforms, while not addressing more politicized issues like racial inequity and the death penalty.

Mississippi, which still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, saw its prison population fall 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, with a 14 percent drop from 2013 to 2014 alone. The state passed a sweeping reform bill in April 2014, supported by a grant from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a partnership between the Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trust to help research criminal justice reform. The bill shortened the sentences for many property and drug crimes and suggested new sentencing recommendations for officers. The state also increased supervision of parolees, increased the number of prisoners freed on parole and opened technical rehabilitation centers, which housed parolees who violated terms of their parole rather than sending them back to prison. Conservatives in the state emphasized the financial impact: $266 million in savings over the next decade.

South Carolina’s prison population has nearly tripled in the past 25 years, and state spending on prisons has increased almost 500 percent since 1983. Faced with a projected growth in prison population and a $27 million Department of Corrections deficit, South Carolina passed a reform bill in 2010. The bill shortened sentences for some non-violent crimes, ended mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession and expanded prison alternatives and parole. From 2011 to 2014, crime dropped 14 percent and the prison population dropped by 6 percent.

Texas faced similar financial pressures in the mid-2000s. Prison population growth showed no signs of slowing down, and would have required spending $500 million on new prisons in 2007. The state responded by appropriating $241 million to prison alternatives including drug courts and substance abuse and mental illness treatment programs. In 2011, the Texas legislature passed two bills that shortened probations if parolees completed treatment programs and reducing prison sentences if prisoners completed educational programs. Texas saw a 12 percent drop in crime from 2011-2012 and a 3 percent drop in prison population.

The Republican-controlled government emphasized savings and assured conservatives the state was still “tough on crime.” In March 2014, Republican Gov. Rick Perry spoke about criminal justice reform at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), assuring the crowd that criminal justice reform was a mainstream conservative strategy.

“You want to talk about real conservative governance?” Perry asked. “Shut prisons down. Save that money. Texas is still tough on crime. Don’t come to Texas if you want to kill somebody.”

Alabama is the most recent Southern state to tackle criminal justice reform. The state was faced with the same mix of budget constraints and booming prison populations, as well as lawsuits from The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Equal Justice Initiative contending that some state prisons did not meet constitutional standards. The Department of Justice backed up the claims, filing a report in 2014 that claimed that inmates at a women’s prison were subject to sexual abuse by male officers.

In May 2015, the state passed a Republican-sponsored bill that followed the strategy of Texas, South Carolina and Mississippi: reducing penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes, creating a new felony designation for some nonviolent offenses and prioritizing parole and parole supervision. Alabama also passed a bill expanding prison capacity. The reforms are estimated to save the state $380 million and reduce the prison population by 4,200 people.

The death penalty: part of the ‘Southern way of life’?

Southern states have been slower to change death penalty policy, which has largely become Southern in use. While the death penalty largely faded away from 1935-1972, the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia reinvigorated the death penalty as a “states’ rights” issue in the South, said Frank Baumgartner, who studies the death penalty and racial inequity in the criminal justice system at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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Racial discrepancies in the death penalty still loom large. As of Jan. 1, 2014, 42 percent of defendants on death row were black and 43 percent were white, although blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. When the victim is a black male, the death penalty is rarely applied even when black men are the most common victims of homicide, Baumgartner said. A black man who kills a white woman is the most likely to be given the death penalty.

While death penalty reform or abolition hasn’t been backed by the same bipartisan push as prison or sentencing reform, there has been some movement on the issue, Baumgartner said. An upcoming Supreme Court case dealing with racial bias in juries may change the application of the death penalty, Baumgartner said. In North Carolina, for instance, of the 159 prisoners on death row, all-white juries sentenced 31 and another 38 had only one person of color on their juries.

“The death penalty has been politicized in the South to be part of the ‘Southern way of life,’ but it’s actually one of the ugliest reminders of the ‘Southern way of life,’ which is this great fear of the black man that might do something terrible to a white woman in the South,” Baumgartner said. “That fear is really strong, and politically powerful… It leads to an arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty really in a discriminatory manner, where some victims are more valuable than others.”

Crime and punishment looking forward

The South has long been a ‘tough on crime’ region with stark racial disparities in its criminal justice system. However, recent reforms in conservative states show an increasingly Republican-led push for lowering prison populations, changing sentencing laws and cutting costs. Bulging prison populations, drug law enforcement and high criminal-justice system costs will push more Southern states into reforms.

Restoring the Infrastructure of Opportunity after Disaster

Today’s post comes from Dr. John Cooper, Associate Professor of Practice and Texas Target Communities Director at Texas A&M University. Dr. Cooper is also an MDC research fellow. Read more about the community disaster recovery work he led at MDC here.

This weekend the South Carolina Gamecocks came to Texas to play my Texas A&M Aggies in football and left with new resources to help relief and recovery efforts after the flooding in South Carolina. In one instance, the Texas A&M Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) teamed with the 12th Man Student Foundation to donate proceeds from the sale of commemorative fan merchandise. In another instance, over 200 members of Aggies CAN, the largest student-athlete run canned food drive in the nation, organized a food drive that began on October 25 and lasted until game day. I should note that this all happened as the death toll from recent storms – tornadoes and floods – in our own backyard was rising.

The aftermath of storms in South Carolina and Texas remind me of the importance of disaster readiness, especially for the poor, elderly, disabled, and others who can’t survive and recover from disasters without help from outsiders. The importance of creating an infrastructure of opportunity is discussed often on this blog, and so are the inspirational and aspirational stories of people and places doing exemplary things to help others climb up the economic latter. Unfortunately, a disaster like the recent floods in North and South Carolina can pull the ladder from under those who need it most in a matter of hours, or minutes in the case of a tornado.

Wondering how a natural disaster and lack of opportunities can pull the ladder?
Think about this situation. Elderly or disabled people often need external assistance after a flood since they cannot handle the majority of the repairing and restoration tasks on their own. Therefore, they might need electricians, plumbers, and experts who provide Water and Mold Restoration Services to come to their rescue quickly. Otherwise, the elders and the disabled would have to sit in knee-deep water in the dark for hours. Therefore, it is important to create opportunities and infrastructure to ensure that everyone can receive emergency aid quickly. Especially, if the properties have fronted severe damages to their structural elements, resources and solutions become very essential.

For instance, the restoration of a property may require Pier and Beam Foundation Repair services, which can be arranged by the local administration authority in damage-ridden areas. Moreover, if the opportunities to get help quickly aren’t created for those in need, then underprivileged people may never be able to climb up the economic ladder. Moreover, providing small aid and support to the underprivileged can actually help them to get out of their financial crunch and establish a better life for themselves.

Anyway, this past February Karama Neal wrote here about how hard it is for folks to live in the South when they face economic challenges, and disasters can exacerbate these challenges. While disasters don’t discriminate, it is no coincidence that disasters in the South (especially floods) tend to affect the poor and people of color more severely than others. This is because those folks historically tend to be concentrated in low-lying “bottom” areas; on land in floodplains not suitable for farming and that no one wanted until waterfront property became fashionable. In the South, it may have been the only land an African American could own. Nevertheless, due to their circumstances, many poor and people of color in the South are place-bound, in homes that are older and less able to withstand extreme forces. They also typically don’t have access to employment, savings, credit or other resources sufficient to recover from disasters. As a result, the hole that some folks were in before the flooding is now deeper and filled with water, and the ladder is missing a few rungs.

Handling disaster recovery is a daunting task even for someone with the knowledge and confidence to communicate with bureaucracy. For others without the resources or access to credit to cope in the short-term, we need an infrastructure of recovery. Volumes were written before and since Katrina about the inequities and inefficiencies of the way disaster relief is managed and I can tell from reports coming out of flood ravaged areas in South Carolina that we are setting up for more of the same. Now that response efforts are wrapping up and before frustrations begin to peak, I want to share a few things based on my 20 years of research and practice, for those interested in increasing the extent to which marginalize populations are able to survive and recover:

  • Don’t settle for a return to the status quo; build better. Typically, recovery efforts seek to “build back” to pre-disaster levels. For the most vulnerable, the status quo is not a desirable positive. Disaster recovery should be transformative; aiming for reduced vulnerability and greater equity.
  • Tighten the safety net. Because navigating the disaster relief process can be a daunting task for folks not accustomed to handling bureaucracy, it is important for non-profits and service agencies to be more vigilant to ensure the populations they serve don’t fall through the cracks. Case management is critical at this time.
  • Participate in local recovery decision making. My colleagues and I recently published an article on pre-disaster recovery planning efforts in 87 counties and municipalities in the South. We discovered most do a poor job of coordinating with nonprofits and involving the public in the process. Stakeholders and those whose mission is to care for the most vulnerable in a community should take the initiative and pursue opportunities to meaningfully participate in recovery planning to ensure the resulting plans account for the most vulnerable populations. They are not likely to be invited.
  • Keep dollars local. Millions of dollars allocated for recovery efforts go to consulting firms and nonprofit relief agencies not based in and ultimately not accountable to the community. One way to use those resources for transformative recovery is to hire local contractors who employ local people and purchase materials from local suppliers to rebuild.
  • Think long-term on housing. Nothing is more frustrating than witnessing resources and time wasted on temporary housing. It is better to invest in more permanent solutions sooner. For example, the Community Foundation of Brownsville, TX has come up with a temporary-to-permanent housing idea that starts with a 400 sq. ft. core unit that is expandable into a 3-4 bedroom customizable home.

My hope is for everyone involved in recovery efforts to be patient and understand that the key to community recovery is a strong community fabric. You are better together.

Employer Engagement: More than Charitable Donors

A low-income person in Houston is more likely to reach the top-20 percent of earners than in any other large Southern city. The Houston region has a diverse and growing economy, which looks less like the past-oil and its cousins-and more like the future’s knowledge-based industries. The region’s affordable housing and job growth drives a surging population, with a soon-to-be majority Latino population, and an aging, whiter workforce. However, Houston might soon face a collision between inequity, economic prosperity, and a fervent belief in small government. Latino and African-American young people, who will fill the jobs vacated by retiring whites, are far behind on every step between education and career. Those students depend on systems of public education that are dispersed and often strapped for resources.

“If Houston’s African-American and Latino young people are unable to succeed,” says Stephen Klineberg, director of the Kinder Institute at Rice University, “it is impossible to envision a prosperous future for the city as a whole.”

While oil still plays a critical economic role in the labor market those young people enter, with one in two jobs affected by energy prices, the city also has become a national leader in applied technology, construction, engineering, and health, according to an analysis by the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston’s Chamber of Commerce. That same analysis shows that non-energy related jobs have made up almost three in four new jobs over the last 30 years. To increase upward economic mobility, Houston will have to connect people to the growth industries and improve the quality of existing jobs.

One key to that connection is reimagining the role between employers and their communities. Tish Young McCutcheon, vice president of organizational planning and public affairs at United Way of Greenville County, is thinking about how to help employers make the shift from charitable donation to conscientious collaboration:


Though much larger than Greenville, Houston’s diverse employer base will have to make a similar shift. Some local partnerships are trying to help them do just that.

The Greater Houston Partnership, working with a wide range of partners, has launched UpSkill Houston, focused on closing the skills gap in key industries such as construction, health care, and manufacturing. UpSkill is focused on four primary areas: increasing awareness of middle-skills jobs, improving the pool of applicants for those jobs, coordinating the education, business, and social services sectors, and collecting better data on talent and job demand. The timing is right: between 2012 and 2017, due to an aging workforce and growing economy, Houston expects about 75,000 annual openings for middle-skill jobs. For leaders in the business community, filling those jobs will be critical to continued economic development. For leaders of training and community organizations, those jobs represent opportunities to help Houston’s low-income people find family-supporting careers. Organizers are confident that the initiative can begin to reframe success, making clear to young people and their families the value of technical skills and credentials and bringing together leaders within business, government, education, and the community. Houston’s business community is influential in setting public policy, and UpSkill has helped business leaders see the importance of the success of the education and training system. Since there are a number of factors that decide whether your team needs reskilling or cross-skilling, it makes sense to assess existing teams to see if there are any gaps in their knowledge and whether a service like UpSkill could help them to achieve the level of work that is expected of them.

Houston has lessons to teach the rest of the South-and the nation. In partnerships, Houston has brought many sectors to bear on the issues of economic mobility. Through applied research, the universities are playing an important role in shaping the community agenda. Through the Greater Houston Partnership and UpSkill Houston, the business community is helping to define the skills needed for tomorrow’s jobs. Various philanthropies, including the Houston Endowment and the United Way of Greater Houston, are investing funds in education and vigorously evaluating what works and what does not. Houston’s economic mobility in the middle of demographic shifts cannot be easily explained by any of these factors, but they’re worth watching.

This post is adapted from a profile written by Max Rose. You can read the full profile and to learn more about how Houston is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people here.

Building Bridges in Brownsville

Brownsville is the southernmost city in Texas. Its city limits are marked by a winding barrier wall, interrupted only by a guarded border crossing to Mexico and part of the local university campus. Breezes from the Gulf of Mexico blow through the small downtown most afternoons. More than a third of the 180,000 residents live below the poverty line and Mexican drug cartels pose a regular challenge to the stability of the economy. Historically, living-wage jobs have been scarce and almost always out of reach for young people without postsecondary credentials. In the last several years, however, America’s poorest city has been cultivating partnerships between educational institutions, employers, and community leaders—all intended to raise the standard of living through investment in youth and local industries. One education to employment partnership called All In—catalyzed in 2010 by a $1.4 million investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—formed just as Brownsville headed into a time of major institutional and economic change, including a resurgence of the manufacturing and aeronautics industries.

In 2008, less than half of Brownsville high school seniors applied to college. Those who attended the local university and community college were part of freshman classes where only 45 percent of students were considered college-ready. That year, however, the educational landscape began to change, prompted by a broad community conversation that demonstrated perseverance, flexibility, and ingenuity in a region of scarce resources. Community-wide visioning conversations that began in 2008 as Imagine Brownsville eventually led to the creation of the All In partnership. Since 2010, the United Way of Southern Cameron County has been the backbone of All In, convening education, community and industry leaders from more than 10 institutions. These include employers like Wells Fargo, educational institutions like the Brownsville Independent School District, and municipal organizations like the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce. One major task for the group—which leaders acknowledge took longer than expected—involved determining the data indicators that best represented Brownsville’s educational and economic health. The development of the 2013 Community Indicator Report required the United Way and the All In partnership coordinator to have frank conversations with institutional leaders about the importance of sharing educational and employment data that, in an economically disenfranchised area, frequently was not flattering. The successful release of this document solidified the shared leadership and commitment. In May 2015, a former student-leader took over the All In partnership coordinator role and will head up the updating of the Community Indicator Report for 2015.

One key component of All In is the corps of Student Ambassadors who return to their high school alma maters to promote a culture of college-going through direct support to students and their families. In this video, Janeth Rico, a lead Student Ambassador, explains the importance of access to information—both for and about young people.


Student Ambassadors intimately understand the barriers to postsecondary education that youth in a poor community face; the Ambassadors become a trusted source of potential solutions. Often through their own life examples, they are able to explain the intricacies of student aid, loans, scholarships, and work study, as well as equip students to speak with their parents about the importance of a postsecondary education. They have grown from a corps of six Ambassadors in 2013 to almost 20 in 2015 and reached more than 2,600 students in 15 Brownsville public schools in the 2014-2015 academic year. Pre-and post-assessment data show that “students know and understand the college process more after experiencing Student Ambassadors’ presentations.” Qualitative data of Student Ambassadors experience suggest that after participating in the program, youth “feel more comfortable with public speaking, have gained confidence in themselves…and take on leadership roles on [what is now] the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus and in the community.”   The Student Ambassadors have emerged as leaders within the All In partnership, actively participating in task force meetings and co-designing program evaluations. One example of this increased community involvement is the recent hiring of Blanca Davila, a long-time Student Ambassador (now with a master’s degree) as All In Partnership Coordinator, on staff with the United Way.

With new partnerships and programs like Student Ambassadors, the educational landscape has been changing in Brownsville. In 2014, every one of Brownsville’s seniors from six high schools applied for college—a  remarkable 100 percent application rate—and 94 percent completed an application for federal or state student aid, a critical step in accessing postsecondary education for a community consistently ranked as one of the poorest in America. (These figures do not include students who are entering the military or students with special needs who have satisfied graduation requirements and will continue receiving services from the Brownsville Independent School District.)    

Today, this city long plagued by poverty and low educational attainment is on its way to becoming a model of open dialogue and shared measurement, fueled by the destruction of institutional barriers that historically fostered a culture of blame. Leaders today are choosing to focus instead on the shared challenge of equipping students for a changing economy, and it’s working. Reba Cardenas McNair, a community leader and local business owner says simply, “We know that we’re among the poorest cities in the country. But we’re changing, and we’re already rich in so many ways.”

For more information on how Brownsville is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people, read our State of the South profile.

Everything Really Is Bigger in Texas

All right, it’s a cliché. But sometimes that “whole other country” can back it up—especially when you’re talking about metro areas. In his presentations about Houston, Stephen Klineberg, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, often shows slides like this to demonstrate the scale of Houston’s sprawl.

Yep. The City of Houston is larger than the combined square mileage of Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago.