A Conversation with CHASP Faculty Fellow Michele Deitch
Maranda Kahl is a first-year Master of Public Affairs student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and 2018-2019 CHASP Ambassador.
Michele Deitch is an attorney and holds a joint appointment as a Senior Lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin.
Maranda talked to professor Deitch about her extensive experience in criminal and juvenile justice reform as well as advice for current policy students.
MARANDA KAHL: What experiences have shaped your path to researching criminal justice issues?
MICHELE DEITCH: I obtained my law degree knowing that I wanted to do something that combined law and psychology. My first year of law school I started working with a clinic that represented prisoners before prison disciplinary boards. That was the first time I went into a prison. From that moment on, I knew that I would focus on the criminal justice system. During law school, I took time out to obtain a Master in Psychology at Oxford, and while there, I did extensive research while based in a therapeutic community prison. That research shaped a lot of my views about incarceration and the treatment of prisoners. I also worked a summer with the National Prison Project, which gave me even more exposure to the treatment of prisoners in the US. After graduating law school and completing a judicial clerkship, I was recruited to be a court-appointed monitor of conditions in the Texas prison system as part of a landmark class action lawsuit. Along the way I realized that I wanted to be involved more in the policy side, so I started working at the Texas Legislature and became General Counsel to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. The position, in the early 1990s, gave me a front row seat to the then-raging policy debates on criminal justice. Texas then created a Sentencing Commission, and I was appointed Policy Director for the Commission.
MK: Tell me about your path to academia.
MD: After the Sentencing Commission office closed, I decided to branch out and start consulting. I began consulting with justice system agencies all over the country. I worked in that capacity for many years. At some point, I decided I wanted to teach a class, so I originally started teaching as an adjunct. I immediately discovered that I love teaching. I became really passionate about preparing the next generation of leaders in this field. Eventually, I accepted a full-time academic position at The University of Texas at Austin. But I’ve always kept one foot in the practice world, and that’s why I try to do a lot of projects with my students that actually affect policy and legislation.
MK: Congratulations on recently being sworn-in as a member of the US Supreme Court Bar! What are some criminal justice issues that you are currently working on, especially into the 2019 Texas legislative session?
MD: I was recently appointed as the chair of an advisory task force, the advisory committee on a proposed new women's jail facility in Travis County (Texas). The objective is to create a women's jail using the best practices from around the world. Not a traditional jail, but a facility that is gender responsive, trauma informed, respectful, and designed to safely rehabilitate women. The task force is trying to do something that’s different from what has always been done. And so we’ve met over the last 9 months, brought together research, shared ideas, and reached a consensus. We recently submitted a major report to the Travis County Commissioners Court, and I testified on our proposal in some detail! It’s a very exciting opportunity to design something from scratch, and those opportunities don’t come up very often. Also, with the 86th Texas Legislative Session, I placed a lot of students in offices at the Legislature to work on juvenile and criminal justice issues through my Advanced Juvenile and Criminal Justice Policy Class, which is focused on the legislative process. There are two significant issues that I will personally be working on. One is the “Raise the Age” initiative, which is an effort to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Texas from 17 to 18. The research I did with my students, starting back in 2011, has really informed this effort. The bill came fairly close to passage the last two legislative sessions. It got out of the House, but hasn’t made it over the finish line. Maybe this will be the session. The other issue I feel very strongly about is the need for independent oversight of the Texas prison system. We need to make our prisons much more transparent and accountable for the safe and humane treatment of people incarcerated there.
MK: What do you think are a few of the top social challenges we are facing today?
MD: You can’t look at the world without talking about race and racial disparities. Race issues and social inequities more broadly cut across all of society. These issues play out in every single policy area, not just the criminal justice system.
MK: Do you have any advice or words or wisdom for today’s masters students?
MD: Find issues that you feel passionate about, issues that make you want to get up every day, issues that you can commit to. Because if you’re not really excited about what you’re doing, then you won’t throw yourself into it. Find something that really moves you. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it excites you. And think about the ways that you can affect the world in that arena. Whether you file lawsuits to address a problem, or work at the legislature to develop policy solutions, or conduct research that will inform policy initiatives, it is all impactful. Lastly, get involved in real world projects. There are plenty of opportunities here at the LBJ School. Getting involved in those projects lets you see how your work--even while you are still a student--can impact legislation or policy.
Michele Deitch holds a joint appointment as a Senior Lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin and a CHASP Faculty Fellow. She is an attorney with more than 30 years of experience working on criminal justice and juvenile justice policy issues with state and local government officials corrections administrators, judges and advocates.
Maranda Kahl is a first-year Master of Public Affairs student and CHASP Ambassador at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. While interested in a variety of social policy areas, she is particularly passionate about poverty alleviation and economic development. She wants to challenge unequitable economic policies and promote healthy economic growth. After LBJ, she hopes to work in economic development at either the national or international level.