Q&A With Charles T. Terrell
After helping send criminals to prison for decades, Dallas’ re-entry czar is now finding ways to keep parolees on the outside.
Q: You are among what surely must be very few people to have a prison-turned-death chamber named after you. You accepted this honor from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and then asked that your name be removed. Why?
A: It’s not that I don’t believe in capital punishment. I just don’t want the wrong people killed, and I began to realize that this was happening. Craig Watkins has already cleared 20 wrongly convicted people, and I didn’t want my name associated with mistakes of this kind.
Q: Does your new approach of focusing on how former prisoners re-enter society come from a change of heart or of philosophy?
A: No. My entire public life has been devoted to helping keep the people of our city and our state safe. I’ve chaired the Texas Criminal Justice System, the Texas Department of Corrections, and the Texas Criminal Justice Task Force, and served on too many public safety boards and commissions to list here. We’ve built more prisons, made tougher laws, and created longer sentences. This new effort is part of a very consistent goal: keeping the public safer. I believe in doing what works. And helping these people become citizens and taxpayers will work.
Q: What is your mission as re-entry czar?
A: About 500 newly released state prisoners, mostly parolees, hit Dallas streets each month, and this number doesn’t include federal or county releases. Re-entry refers to these formerly incarcerated persons—we call them FIPs—re-entering society. If we don’t help these guys out, they can’t get jobs or the training and stability necessary to get jobs. They’ll go back to crime because they have no choice. Our mission is to keep the people of Dallas safer, and every time we help someone not go back, we’re helping accomplish that.
Q: When you were appointed czar, the mayor announced a three-year pilot program called DOORS: Dallas One-stop Optimized Re-entry System. What’s that?
A: DOORS came about because of the work of Michael Lee, a 23-year FBI veteran who has made re-entry his life’s work for the last eight years. With DOORS, he has created a framework under which more than 39 agencies and organizations are now working together to provide FIPs with housing, jobs, medical care, family counseling, and a number of other services, the most important of which is job training. DOORS and Michael became the focus of our organization, Safer Dallas Better Dallas.
Q: Explain Safer Dallas Better Dallas, please.
A: [Former Highland Park mayor] Jack Hammack and I set out to build a community organization to raise funds to provide equipment needed by the Dallas Police Department. Through foundation grants and public donations, we raised more than $18 million, fulfilled all of Chief David Kunkle’s requests, provided our officers with 700 essential AR-15 rifles, and helped fund UNT’s Police Institute in South Dallas. Most important, we have persuaded, encouraged, and begged the City Council to bring the police presence up to the mandated three per 1,000 of population. Now, with a council commitment to a net gain of 200 officers per year, Mayor Tom Leppert, Chief Kunkle, and District Attorney Craig Watkins have asked us to turn our attention to re-entry. My appointment in May reflects this new direction, and we’re lucky to have Michael Lee and Vicki Hallman—who recently retired as director of the Dallas Parole Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice—onboard to make this effort a success.