Friday, March 23, 2018


Proposed Houston city ordinance repunishes ex-offenders

By Natalia Cornelio

Houston Chronicle
March 20, 2018

Where do people go after they’re released from prison?

In Houston, local politicians seem determined to make them go far from jobs, family and other services that help them transition back into society. It is a policy that City Hall needs to rethink.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice releases 13,000 to 15,000 people into the Houston area each year. Many of these people are released on parole, which means that they still receive some level of supervision from TDCJ. Nearly 80 percent of people released on parole were charged with property or drug offenses.

As Texans, our decision to incarcerate people comes with a great responsibility, including consideration of the important question of what comes after incarceration, for both the person incarcerated and for the community to which they must return. Fortunately, there are numerous nonprofits and faith-based organizations that provide a tremendous service to our communities by providing housing and programming that grant parolees the chance to meaningfully reintegrate back into our community.

Unfortunately, the Houston City Council is scheduled to vote this week on an ordinance that threatens housing and re-entry programs by imposing restrictions on alternate housing facilities, which is broadly defined to include any private home in which three or more parolees reside. The most burdensome restriction proposed is that all of these residences be located at least 1,000 feet away from any park, school, day-care center and other alternate housing facility within the city of Houston.

The mayor and City Council claim that this ordinance is about keeping people safe. But when asked, the city cannot answer one basic question: What is the public safety benefit of requiring parolees to live 1,000 feet away from parks and schools?

The answer: There isn’t one.

In drafting this ordinance, the city provided no evidence or expert testimony to justify its arbitrary geographic restriction. This is not an acceptable foundation for good public policy, let alone issues of public safety that affect us all.

Successful reintegration depends on stability and support, but the 1,000-foot restriction alienates parolees from the very community they are trying to reintegrate back into by pushing them farther from family, jobs, counseling or recovery services, medical care, grocery stories and public transportation. Parolees already face numerous hardships upon return to society, including accessing housing, transportation, and stigmatization: We do not need to exacerbate these hardships.

If passed, these restrictions would unnecessarily restrict, and potentially even shut down, numerous existing organizations who provide parolee housing and reentry services in the Houston area. The city insists that a grandfather clause addresses the concerns of providers; however, there is no guarantee that existing programs will qualify. Furthermore, these restrictions severely limit the ability of future organizations who want to provide these services to establish housing almost anywhere in the Houston metropolitan area. By limiting housing options, the mayor and council will exacerbate the already alarming homelessness problem our city is facing.

The proposed ordinance falls short of its goals relating to occupancy and building regulations, while jeopardizing the very thing it claims to be seeking to achieve: public safety. Alternate housing facilities help Houston achieve public safety by providing the structure and support necessary for persons to successfully reintegrate into society after incarceration, including rules, access to jobs and other support.

According to Tony VanDerbur from Christian New Creation, their Isaiah and Providence housing programs have recidivism rates of less than 5 percent. This means that more than 95 percent of people who go through this alternate housing program stay out of prison. Imposing unnecessary burdens on programs like Isaiah and Providence houses is a move in the wrong direction. For these groups and volunteers to be successful, they need the full support of our city leaders and civil society.

Parolees will be coming home to Houston and rejoining our community whether or not the city passes this ordinance. The question is whether they get a fair shot at being fully-functioning members of our society, or whether the city will exacerbate their punishment by restricting their housing options, making it more likely that they will re-offend. We need to be prepared to provide safe, effective programming and housing options for all Houstonians.

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Alternate housing’ is a clever way of avoiding the term ‘halfway housing’ which in some cases have gotten a bad rap. Having said that though, I agree the proposed ordinance makes little if any sense. It is really designed to keep these houses out of ‘better’ neighborhoods, but in doing so, the ordinance just about would prevent such housing anywhere within the city of Houston.

A better ordinance would be to require all such housing to be licensed by the city, a violation of which would carry heavy fines. By requiring these halfway houses to be licensed, they would be kept out of neighborhoods wherein property owners would object to their presence.

In any event, I would think each ‘alternative house’ would have to be visited by a parole officer every night, and you know that ain’t about to happen.

1 comment:

Trey Rusk said...

Halfway houses are just that. The inmate is halfway to being free but still needs close supervision. I believe halfway houses should have live on the premises parole staff that set strict boundaries for inmates to follow.