Christopher Connelly

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.

Christopher is a graduate of Antioch College in Ohio – he got his first taste of public radio there at WYSO – and he earned a master’s in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley. He also has deep Texas roots: He spent summers visiting his grandparents in Fort Worth, and he has multiple aunts, uncles and cousins living there now.

Lawmakers in Austin who oversee the state’s sprawling prison system are concerned about state jails. These middle-tier facilities, which are for low-level felons with crimes related to underlying issues, were set up with the idea that they’d provide an array of rehabilitative services that would prevent future crime.

Most people in Texas jails are legally innocent. They’ve been arrested but are awaiting trial. They haven’t been convicted of a crime.

Advocates across the political spectrum say that’s because whether a defendant is stuck in jail before trial depends way too much on how wealthy they happen to be, and lawmakers have introduced bills to overhaul the state’s bail laws.

When Mia Greer went to prison, she says she wasn’t the only one who was punished. Her kids suffered too.

“They started failing in school, my son started lashing out,” Greer, a registered nurse from Austin, told lawmakers on the House Corrections committee on Thursday.

With the legislature at work in Austin, constituencies of all kinds are working to make their wants and needs clear. The Texas Municipal Police Association’s executive editor, Kevin Lawrence, says his wish list focused less on what he wants from lawmakers, but what he hopes they won’t do.

The top judge on the Texas Supreme Court gave lawmakers a big wish list during his State of the Judiciary speech in Austin today. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht’s list includes some new spending, some savings and fundamentally rethinking business-as-usual in Texas courts.

Texas lawmakers are expected to look at a range of criminal justice issues during the 2019 legislative session. Criminal justice reforms have been a bipartisan bright spot for a decade in Austin, as conservative and liberal lawmakers have sought to reduce the number of people behind bars, increase public safety and cut costs.

In a nondescript West Dallas office complex, David Villalobos is on a roll, talking to about three dozen men and women – mostly black and Latino – all in matching teal shirts. They are canvassers for the Texas Organizing Project, preparing to hit the streets and knock on doors. Villalobos is answering a question about getting people to talk about the election when they’re not very interested in voting.

When William Roundtree got out of prison earlier this year, it took him just a few days to find a job that put his experience to work.

He spent 13 years and 10 months in prison for receiving stolen property. It was the tail end, Roundtree says, of an all-too-common story in the Dallas neighborhood where he grew up: drugs, dealing, addiction, stealing. After a few short prison stays, he received one long sentence for stealing tools and being a habitual offender. During that time, he says, he got clean without any treatment.

Recess at Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, looks much like recess anyplace else. Some kids run and squeal, others swing, while a half-dozen of their peers are bunched up on the slide.

Journey Orebaugh, a 6-year-old in an off-white princess dress, is playing family.

"You just get a bunch of people and just act like who you want to be," she says. Journey likes to play the mom.