Pubdate: Sun, 22 Apr 2001
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2001 Houston Chronicle
Author: Thom Marshall


"The system ought to work for you, not against you."

The Rev. James Nash said that the other day when we were talking at the 
detail shop at 8019 Scott that he operates in partnership with one of his 

Nash, 62, has been pastor of the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church for 22 
years. He grew up in the Sunnyside neighborhood. He understands the people, 
knows their problems, realizes their potential. And he has become quite 
concerned at how the criminal justice system is treating members of his 
congregation, and his neighbors -- especially the young people.

He called me after reading about the Harris County Criminal Lawyers 
Association's recent resolution condemning the practice of judges who 
revoke a person's bond because the person hasn't hired an attorney. He 
agrees that is a problem, but he wants to see reform efforts expanded.

Another area that needs attention is the amazingly high bonds that are set 
in some cases. Such as a fellow he knows who was jailed for a probation 
violation and had his bond set at $100,000.

Then there are the court-appointed attorneys and the plea bargains they try 
to talk their clients into accepting. Such as a young man of Nash's 
acquaintance who was busted after an undercover officer tried to buy some 
drugs from him. The family called Nash for help, and it looked to him like 
a pretty weak case.

Doing his part to get reforms

Oh, the kid had made a stupid mistake, Nash said. No question about that. 
But Nash was absolutely amazed when the court-appointed attorney said if 
the young man would plead guilty he could get a 40-year sentence.

Nash said that plea arrangement wasn't any bargain, and he advised against 
it. The young man's mother managed to replace the appointed lawyer with a 
hired one, Nash made some calls and lined him up with a job, and when the 
case went before a judge the young man wound up on probation.

There are some 27 churches in the Ark of Love District Association, and 
Nash said every one of those other 26 pastors could tell stories similar to 
his about people in their congregations who have had unfair experiences 
with the criminal justice system.

Nash said he wants to get involved in helping to reform the system and is 
talking with others about how best to proceed. And he is likely to move 
quickly from the talking and planning stage to the doing something stage, 
based upon his track record.

He acted fast about four years ago when pressure had built to near the 
popping point after a Vietnamese shopkeeper shot a black teen-ager. With 
some Asian-American leaders he formed the Asian/African American Relations 
Task Force to foster cultural understanding between Asian-Americans and 
African-Americans. It has been quite successful.

And Nash is well aware that the best way to keep young people from being 
abused by the criminal justice system is to keep them off the streets. If 
they are busy at worthwhile activities they are unlikely to get caught up 
in the system.

Community center stalled

So, on a lot around the corner from the church, Nash and his congregation 
are building the Marcie L. Keys Activities Center (named for the woman who 
has been a member of the church for the longest time). It will serve 
everyone in the neighborhood, with a gym for basketball and volleyball, 
some after-school programs, instruction sessions on how to fill out job 
applications and how to vote ... .

"We've got a lot of plans," Nash said. "We have to let kids know they can 
do all right, they can succeed."

Construction on the $160,000 building was interrupted shortly after it 
began. Nash said the city wants one side moved five feet to allow room for 
a sidewalk. Not that the city has any sidewalk planned. This is a part of 
the city that doesn't even have curbs and gutters, just those deep and 
dangerous roadside ditches.

Seems silly for a non-sidewalk to delay a building that will do so much 
good for the community.

Like the man said: The system should work for you, not against you.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart