Council Recap: Help for Former Prisoners, An APD Shooting Settlement

Photo by John Anderson

City Council worked through a relatively light agenda Thursday, Sept. 2, approving three notable items related in different ways to the local criminal justice system.

Building Promise USA, an Austin-based nonprofit that helps those who are re-entering life outside of prison, was awarded a 12-month, $200,000 grant to develop a “one-stop shop” where formerly incarcerated clients will connect with the services they need to make their transition a success. The contract amount comes from a $400,000 reinvestment of Austin Police Department funds, via a budget amendment by Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison in August 2020, toward wraparound services for people leaving prison. The Building Promise contract allows for two 12-month extensions, not to exceed $600,000.

Founded in 2017, Building Promise offers a “peer-led, peer-run, peer-driven” approach to meeting its clients’ needs. Carl Hunter, the nonprofit’s executive director, tells the Chronicle the people leading the organization either have direct or indirect experience with the prison system. Hunter’s son Isaiah is serving a 36-year sentence in Colorado; Reggie Smith, BPUSA’s founder, is also formerly incarcerated.

This lived experience with the impacts of the carceral system helps both clients and staff navigate through the many institutional obstacles that make obtaining stable housing, transportation, and income after incarceration so difficult. “It’s the power of empathy,” Hunter told us. “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. When I can say, ‘I understand how the collateral consequences impact your life after incarceration,’ to people I am working with, I am better able to serve them.”

Hunter notes that the prison system does very little to prepare people for life outside of it, and the systems of support that can help people are often hard to find throughout government agencies, nonprofits, and other community networks. It’s hard to take the time to navigate those systems while trying to hold down a job, caring for one’s family and keeping up with parole, probation, and other systems of control that can dominate the lives of the formerly incarcerated. The challenge can lead to a sense of hopelessness that can increase the likelihood of recidivism and, even when it doesn’t, leaves people who’ve left prison and their families ever further behind their peers as time goes on.

BPUSA envisions a central hub where its staff helps clients through a series of “warm handoffs” to workforce development programs, employers, food and housing assistance, and other contributors to post-prison stability. Such a hub has been recommended by the Austin-Travis County Re-entry Roundtable of advocates convened to identify and propose solutions to gaps in local support systems. The BPUSA proposal was selected from among seven applicants for the grant funding managed through the city’s Equity Office. Grant requirements include participation in an Undoing Racism workshop and a report in 12 months detailing progress on the re-entry initiative.

Council also approved a $2.25 million settlement in a civil lawsuit filed by the parents of Jason Roque, a 20-year-old Hispanic man in crisis who was fatally shot by APD Officer James Harvel in 2017. Council Member Mackenzie Kelly was the lone vote against the settlement; she told us, “My understanding is that the DA [then Margaret Moore] gave a declination letter and had no charges for the officer, as well as APD clearing the officer internally. Any loss of life is tragic and my heart breaks for the Roque family.” Harvel did not face criminal charges, but the civil suit against him was allowed to proceed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year. The settlement is the largest Austin has paid in an excessive force case since Ketty Sully, mother of David Joseph, was awarded $3.25 million in 2016. (We’ll have more on the Roque case online and in our upcoming print issue.)

Finally, Council complied with an order from the Texas Supreme Court to revise the Proposition A ballot language it adopted on Aug. 11. The court agreed with the city that the ballot language for Save Austin Now’s police staffing initiative should include its estimated fiscal impact, but by adding to SAN’s original petition caption “… at an estimated cost of $271.5 million – $598.8 million over five years,” instead of Council writing its own ballot description. Mayor Steve Adler and Save Austin Now both claimed victory in response to the Court’s ruling.

CM Greg Casar, however, said he was disappointed in the court’s decision. “Some of the language we’re being ordered to put on the ballot in my view is misleading,” he said, such as the SAN caption’s reference to “enhanced police accountability,” which its ordinance does not address. “I am troubled by this precedent of having to put something on the ballot that would mislead voters.”