Rice Students To Pitch Criminal Justice Reform Ideas To Harris County Officials

It’s the fourth year of Rice’s “Houston Policy Challenge.”

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and W.R. Dobbins, Assistant Chief at the Criminal Investigations Command of the Houston Police Department participated in a forum about hate crimes and other topics organized by the Anti-Defamation League in Houston.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, left, and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, center, along with two judges will judge Rice University’s students’ ideas to improve the criminal justice system Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

Fourteen teams of nearly 50 Rice University students will pitch ideas to local law enforcement and judicial officials Wednesday as part of a program to help students design solutions to public policy issues in Houston.

“Houston Policy Challenge,” now in its fourth year, will this year focus on ways to improve the criminal justice system, according to Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership. Students will make their pitches to Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison and Harris County criminal court Judge Franklin Bynum.

The program focuses on a different public policy topic each year, and this year student participation doubled, according to center director Elizabeth "Libby" Vann.

"There's a lot of local and national attention on criminal justice as an issue focus," she said. "And I think that's driving a lot of it."

Criminal justice reform has become a significant platform for many elected officials and candidates in the region. In 2018, a federal court of appeals ruled Harris County’s use of cash bail unfairly impacted indigent defendants and was ruled unconstitutional. Local judges have since adopted new rules to release the majority of defendants in nonviolent misdemeanor cases on a personal recognizance bond.

Previous years' program topics included mobility, flooding and affordable housing. So far, the students' pitches have not led to real policy changes, Vann said. But at least one proposal seems to be under consideration by policy makers: a shared BCycle-Metro card that would enable riders to use Metro Houston and the ride-share service BCycle with one swipe, addressing the last mile issue for bus and rail customers.

Some of the criminal justice topics covered this year are pretrial diversion programs, re-entry programs and risk assessment.

"Our students have a really diverse range of interests around campus and the ability to kind of cross those with criminal justice has just been really amazing," said Emma Donnelly, a sophomore studying social policy analysis and philosophy.

The panel will choose a winner Wednesday, but the hope is that the students' ideas lead to real change, said Donnelly, whose team won the affordable housing challenge in 2019.

"I hope that it will push them to continue to reach out to people who are young and working on policy more often," said Donnelly, "because I think the ideas that I've seen really spark a lot of interest in me and I hope they spark that same interest in the judges."

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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