Opinion: We Need to Break the Barriers for Texans With Old Records

Maggie Luna, an Austin resident and mom of three, writes about her experience in the Texas prison system and how a rehabilitation center changed her life

Opinion: We Need to Break the Barriers for Texans With Old Records

Texas has the largest state prison population in the United States. Our rate of incarceration is more than five times higher than what it was in 1980, and when folks have served their time, they face impossible barriers to reentering our society and making a positive impact.

I had a tumultuous upbringing on the outskirts of Houston. Incidences of sexual assault, homelessness, and addiction led to a cycle of drug-related crimes that had me in and out of prison for years. I lost everything in the process, including custody of my three children.

Everything changed for me when I entered a rehabilitation center after my last arrest.

Surrounded by supportive counselors and volunteers, I gained the skills I needed to enter the workforce – and society overall – with confidence. It wasn't easy; my résumé was rejected 144 times in three months. But I knew that I had something to offer, and for the first time, I had people in my corner, which made all the difference. As the executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, today I work to save lives by connecting formerly incarcerated folks like myself to services.

The majority of individuals who have been through the criminal justice system are eager and prepared to embark on a new path in life. But the system often impedes our opportunities for transformation, rather than facilitating them. Across Texas, hundreds of laws and policies related to past records block citizens from economic opportunity, holding families and communities in cycles of "post-conviction poverty."

These restrictions aren't solely burdening Texas. A recent nationwide survey highlights the challenges of rebuilding a productive life with a past legal record. Voices of Redemption found that most folks with a record continue to face economic hardship. More than half have found difficulty securing employment and earning a sufficient income to cover basic necessities, such as groceries and rent.

Texas has made strides to fix this, including passing Victim Services Administrative Reform, which advanced administrative improvements to reduce barriers to accessing victim compensation support. We're currently working with state leaders to incentivize rehabilitation and address the challenges that fines and fees pose for people to succeed on probation.

Folks with past records are eager to make a positive impact and contribute to our communities. Many of us have spent years outside the system, striving to create stable environments for our families and fostering healing in our communities. Texas carries both a moral obligation and a practical necessity to take more significant steps in enabling those with past records to overcome the obstacles that still impede our access to housing, education, and employment.

When Texans reenter society after incarceration, we face near-impossible barriers that make it hard to survive. Our state needs to provide the pathway and resources for people to get back on their feet. That's why I joined TimeDone, a nationwide community of people living with past records, organizing to end post-conviction poverty.

In early November, TimeDone hosted its second community event in Austin, laying the groundwork for Texans to connect to resources and empower themselves. Together, we can tackle the widespread issue of violent crime while enhancing Texas' economic prospects. Those with past legal records are merely seeking an opportunity to contribute to the resolutions.

Maggie Luna is executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and the TimeDone Texas Chapter coordinator.

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rehabilitation, Texas prisons, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, TimeDone Texas, criminal justice, criminal justice reform

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