Yulise Reaves Waters: The church can help disrupt the schools-to-prison pipeline

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At a time when the criminal justice system is looking for alternatives to prison, the church has an important role to play in helping those who need it most, says a Dallas assistant city attorney.

As an assistant city attorney and community courts prosecutor for the city of Dallas, Yulise R. Waters works with others to help young people charged with crimes turn their lives around -- acquiring new skills and, when possible, avoiding jail and prison time.

Yulise WatersAnd as both a lawyer and an active church member, Waters sees that the church has an important role to play in that work.

In Dallas’ Second Chance Community Improvement Program Court, which Waters helped launch in 2016, young adult nonviolent offenders perform community service and receive counseling and educational, job, and life skills training. After completing the program, the offenders have their cases dismissed and their criminal records expunged.

“In our court program, we express a message of hope, and it would be wonderful for the church to come in and work alongside us to continue to express that message,” she said.

Churches need to contact programs in their communities that are working to change the criminal justice system and ask how they might give support, Waters said.

“Many times, we just need a positive presence,” she said. “We need somebody who may look like them, somebody who may come from the same community, who can demonstrate a positive presence in their lives.”

Young offenders going through the Second Chance program often simply don’t know that other ways of doing things exist or how to navigate social systems. “Just having the support to get … from Point A to Point B can be critical,” Waters said.

“The church is called to demonstrate love, to work for liberation of all people, to demonstrate hope, to come alongside and to be a support,” she said. “And the largest population for that right now are people who are currently or formerly incarcerated or involved in the justice system.”

Waters earned B.A. and J.D. degrees from Southern Methodist University. She was at Duke Divinity School in June to attend the Summer Institute of the Center for Reconciliation and lead a panel discussion on restorative justice and alternatives to the schools-to-prison pipeline.

She spoke about her work with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Give us an overview of the schools-to-prison pipeline and the search for alternatives.

The schools-to-prison pipeline is the idea that because of many factors impacting life and behaviors, many kids in impoverished communities from elementary age on are on a trajectory headed toward prison.

There is a very strong correlation between social health determinants and criminogenic risk factors. And the reality is that over the course of history, many public policies created these systems and spaces for young black and brown kids to wind up institutionalized in the prison industry.

But as folks recognized the revolving-door cycle of criminology, particularly with the war on drugs and the draconian laws that were put in place and the militarization of police in impoverished communities, they recognized that we’re getting nowhere just locking people up.

Caseloads began to mount tremendously. Prosecutors and defense attorneys were overwhelmed just trying to get cases off their dockets. So if that meant being pressed to agree to a plea deal even if you were innocent, then you took the probation or the two or three years in prison and you kept the docket moving.

In the late 1980s, practitioners in Florida came up with the concept of drug courts. The idea was to address the underlying social factors that caused folks to be addicts and to give them social services to try to disrupt the behavior that kept them in the criminal justice system.

Since then, drug courts have developed extensively, but also from that model developed other problem-solving courts, a whole array of courts that address a number of issues -- community courts, veterans courts, DWI courts, prostitution diversion courts and other courts that work to address the underlying problems that caused the person to be engaged in the criminal justice system, as an alternative to incarceration.

Q: And you’ve done some of that work in Dallas as an assistant city attorney and community courts prosecutor. Tell us about that.

When I was hired in 2011, I worked in community prosecution, which is a division in the Dallas City Attorney’s Office. I worked collaboratively with the Dallas Police Department and Code Enforcement to increase safety, decrease crime and improve quality of life.

The idea is that city attorneys or assistant city attorneys help community members understand how to access city government and services and be able to address some of the underlying issues that perpetuate some of the nuisance criminal activity that can make living in a community challenging.

Later, I became a prosecutor for our community courts. We have five community courts in the city of Dallas. We work, again, collaboratively with the Dallas Police Department and Code Enforcement to address low-level crimes.

The idea is that if we address the underlying problem, then we can prevent that person from continuing the behavior. For instance, when someone who gets a public intoxication citation comes to court, I let them know what their options are.

But I also offer them deferred disposition, somewhat like probation, but in which we do a social service assessment to determine other needs they might have -- if they need to get a driver’s license or get their GED or get rental assistance, utility assistance, all kinds of services that could potentially help impact whatever fueled their behavior.

After we address that and they complete the terms of their deferred disposition, which might include community service, then we move to have the case dismissed.

That work focuses on low-level crimes, Class C misdemeanors such as public intoxication or premise violations and substandard structures.

Q: You also helped found a court called Second Chance Community Improvement Program Court, which deals with felony offenders.

It developed as part of a larger project. When I was a community prosecutor, I and two colleagues were asked by our respective deputy chiefs of the police department what we could do about revolving-door crime.

So we developed a program, the Second Chance Community Improvement Program Court, a court for drug and drug-related offenses.

We piloted the program for about a year and a half and partnered with a local nonprofit to provide our case manager.

We began the project focusing on adults 18 to 25 but later raised the age limit to 30. Our goal is to transform participants’ lives and behaviors through accountability, education, empowerment, support and responsibility. We tell people that it will be the hardest thing they will ever do, but at the end, when they complete the program, their cases will be dismissed and immediately filed for expungement. That’s huge for a young adult.

Q: How does it work?

The first phase is about developing systems and patterns of behavior that promote pro-social activity. They get a schedule; they come to court and meet with a case manager weekly. The main thing is getting them into a pattern of living that is not just being dormant and waiting for some sort of criminal opportunity to come along.

The second phase is about exposure. We have biweekly life skills groups conducted by the case manager that deal with everything from dysfunctional families to civic engagement to time management to parenting skills.

We’ve partnered with universities and churches to provide additional support. We do vocational skills training and try to get them connected to local businesses that are willing to work with them to develop job skills.

We find that most young adults in the criminal justice system dropped out about ninth or 10th grade, don’t have any job skills, are terribly impulsive and angry, and many have experienced multiple layers of trauma.

In Texas, 250,000 young adults will be arrested annually. Of those, 75 percent will recidivate, will be rearrested.

What we also know is that if we use social services interventions, connecting them to job opportunities and peer support and things like that, we can reduce that to 10 percent.

Q: What results are you getting?

We’re still in the pilot phase, with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Center for Court Innovation. We are also partnering with another organization, the Lone Star Justice Alliance, to help bring the program to scale and be able to produce the data that we need to tell the story of the work we’re doing.

But anecdotally, of the folks who have graduated and had their cases dismissed and expunged, we’ve not had anyone recidivate. Nobody has gone back through the system again.

Q: You stand at an interesting intersection, where many of these issues meet. Your husband is a pastor, and you’re active in the church. You’re a prosecutor and city attorney. What’s the church’s role in trying to change the school-to-prison pipeline?

Churches across the board are dwindling. But the population that needs the church the most is the currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. If you think about the fact that a little over 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, that’s multiple churches right there.

These are people who are looking for love and support, people, many of whom were arrested for low-level crimes and went to jail because they pled out on a case or had an overworked public defender or defense attorney.

They have been labeled a felon or a misdemeanant. They have this horrible designation as a criminal. Some don’t have the right to vote or the right to have access to federal funds for education.

We have this entire community of people that has been disenfranchised, and not necessarily because of any inherent criminogenic factors. It’s just the fact that we have a society that has neglected them from the point that they were born.

In our court program, we express a message of hope, and it would be wonderful for the church to come in and work alongside us to continue to express that message.

Q: What can churches do?

Churches can connect with programs impacting the criminal justice system and ask, “What support can we give?”

Many times, we just need a positive presence. We need somebody who may look like them, somebody who may come from the same community, who can demonstrate a positive presence in their lives.

For instance, our case manager has a caseload of 18 folks. It seems low, but when you think about the intense level of case management that our folks need, she’s overwhelmed regularly.

A team of folks from a church could come in while she’s doing case management and listen to this young adult who doesn’t know how to navigate systems and never had a schedule. If you had somebody alongside them who said, “This is what you need to accomplish. I’ll come pick you up so that we can do it; we’ll walk through it together” --

Most of the things that we’re asking them to do, you would think they should be able to accomplish, given their age. But in terms of their skill and their level of experience with the social order, it’s terribly intimidating.

They can navigate the streets, but when you put them into mainstream society and ask them to navigate those waters, they are intimidated. A lot of times, they fail to accomplish their tasks, not because they can’t do them, but because of fear.

Many folks going through our program don’t know that there’s another way of doing things. They don’t know that there are resources and access.

So just having the support to get a participant from Point A to Point B can be critical to their progression through the program.

The church is called to demonstrate love, to work for liberation of all people, to demonstrate hope, to come alongside and to be a support. And the largest population for that right now are people who are currently or formerly incarcerated or involved in the justice system.

We as Christians can be empathetic to the plights of those who really need advocates.

Q: What are the challenges today in creating that empathy?

The biggest hurdle is decades and decades of materials and propaganda that have painted this population in a certain light. It has taken years of digging into mental health and the construction of the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs to understand the social factors that have created the current climate.

Being able to humanize those who are involved in the justice system is the greatest challenge in creating that empathy. It’s easy to say, “Those people …” It’s easy to say, “They didn’t pick themselves up by their bootstraps” or, “Those welfare people …” or, “Those people who are binging off the system, causing my tax dollars to go up …”

It’s easy to cast aside people who fall into that category. It’s easy to make them not human.

But then when we begin to unpack their plight and realize the role that we played in the disenfranchisement, in the marginalization, it requires us to become self-reflective and to see where we have contributed or we have failed to act or failed to see.

And I’m talking all of us.

There’s no easy fix. There’s no simple legislation you can pass. There’s no set amount of dollars that you can throw at the problem and think that it’s going to fix it.

When you start to peel back the layers, you recognize how much of a systematic challenge this whole thing is.

Q: Where do you see and find hope?

When my husband started the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage, we connected with Joanne Bland in Selma, Alabama, at the National Voting Rights Museum. She told us that when the slaves were being transported across the trans-Atlantic trade route, they would say to each other, “I see your greatness,” to speak life into one another.

When we close out our life skills groups, they get into a circle and have closing words, and then they say to each other, “I see your greatness.”

The hope is that we are providing not just an alternative to incarceration but an alternative, period. It’s a life of hope for people who have experienced multiple layers of trauma, disappointment, anger and everything else that you could think of that could crush a person.

We come alongside them and instill hope, to say, “You have a purpose; you have a reason for being here. There is something for you to do to help us help you get there.”