Thursday, August 13, 2015


Months ago, I attended a hearing of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee to give testimony for HB 1510, which ultimately passed. When the legislation goes into effect in January, it will remove the risk of lawsuits from landlords when they decide to lease property to individuals with criminal background records.  The bill was entirely about the perception of risk.  The actual risk associated with leasing property to someone with a history of involvement with the criminal justice system is rather low. 

There are a number of factors that mitigate risk.  Consistent participation in recovery groups is a strong indicator that the person will be a responsible renter.  Successfully completing probation or parole are good signs, but so are meeting all community supervision conditions such as paying fees on time and fulfilling all community service requirements.  From the standpoint of a potential landlord, the most likely indicators that an individual is unlikely to commit a new crime include employment and housing stability. 
That is to say, if a person can meet the criteria on a rental application, a landlord can rest assured that the applicant is worth the risk, regardless of criminal history. 
All HB 1510 does is encourage landlords to place the criminal background check aside and have a conversation with someone who is trying to create a new life.  Landlords who take the risk and lease property to people with criminal histories actually promote stability and reduce the risk of recidivism.  They can do this today.  They don’t have to wait until the bill goes into effect. 

Despite the gap between the perceived and actual risk, Legislators remained concerned that the bill would remove the right to sue landlords who rent to people who have committed violent crimes like murder, aggravated robbery, or sexual assault.  These are known as “3g” offenses, shorthand for the section of the Texas Code of Criminal Procures that lists the most serious crimes.  Before HB 1510 could proceed through the legislative process, the bill had to be modified to retain imaginary barriers between violent “offenders” and unsuspecting neighborhoods. 

The Committee hearing ran very late, so only a few people testified. It was one of those strange moments in the session when a bill has such strong support that too much testimony actually does more harm than good.  I decided to merely thank the Members and invited them to read my written testimony.  Then I sat down.  There is so much I wish I could have said. 

I thought of my own time in prison and the “3g offenders” I knew.  Every incarcerated individual doing time in the general population of Texas state prisons wears white.  There is nothing that distinguishes one individual from another with respect to the crimes that led them to prison.  There are three paths available to them:  become more entrenched in criminal thinking, make no progress at all, or work to change the factors that led them to prison.  I surrounded myself with people who chose the more difficult path.  My mentors and friends were people who had fully committed themselves to exemplary lives.  Most of them had committed 3g offenses. 

Seldom have I met people more selfless than the “men in white” serving others while serving time.  For example, when an increasingly large number of young men were transferred to my unit, a group of mature men created a ministry to mentor these younger individuals. They formed group discussions and developed classes. They taught these young men to take pride in living upstanding lives, and they helped them to see that being accountable for your behavior is a sign of strength.  
The sad irony is that, had these young men experienced as youth such unconditional regard from committed adults who were truly invested in their lives, they would have gone to college instead of prison. 
I joined another group of men to teach classes on sexual assault and HIV prevention. My fellow educators had spent years in a culture that told them to mind their own business if they witnessed a rape. In the decades they had spent in prison, they learned that there is nothing worse than a “snitch.” Somehow, my peers summoned the courage to oppose the culture of silence.  They refused to tolerate sexual assault, and they dared to encourage others to report incidents to prison authorities. Because of them, the culture is changing. I deeply admired the courage of these men, most of whom had committed violent crimes.

My greatest teachers were so called “3g offenders.”  The man who helped me to take responsibility for my crimes was serving 40 years for aggravated robbery.  I learned from him that, in refusing to blame addiction for the robberies I committed, I empowered myself to change the destructive ways in which I dealt with anger, fear, and shame.  Another man spent hours every week teaching me how to find serenity in the face of grief and uncertainty. He is serving a life sentence for murdering his wife during an alcoholic blackout. He became a father figure to me, especially after my own father died.

These men were not atypical. I found positive lights on every unit, in every dorm, and on every cell block. When I asked for help, men-in-white stepped up to help me live a productive and meaningful life. 
Every challenge I successfully master out here in the “free” world, be it professional, emotional, or interpersonal, I owe to my neighbors inside prison. 
About 95 percent of those serving time will eventually return to the community.  Interestingly, the recidivism rate for those convicted of violent offenses is slightly lower than the rate for those convicted of certain nonviolent offenses.  Further, when the crime is drug-related, those convicted of violent offenses respond even more favorably to drug treatment than those convicted of nonviolent offenses. I saw this first hand while in prison.  The "3g offenders" I knew embraced rehabilitation and worked hard to share it with others. These are exactly the types of people I'd like to call "neighbor."