Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dr. LaShondra Jones helps veterans mired in the criminal justice system

The affinity that Dr. LaShondra Charmaine Jones has shown veterans was apparent after conversing with a Vietnam-era veteran in 2012 while volunteering at a reentry facility in Houston, Texas.
“The facility specifically focuses on men who’ve been incarcerated 20 or more years,” said Jones, a native Memphian who graduated Dec. 10, 2016, from Texas Southern University in the Barbara Jordan/Mickey Leland School of Public Policy.
Dr. LaShondra Charmaine Jones
 After nearly four years of study, Jones, 41, scrolled upfront in cap and gown during the graduation ceremony in the Health and Physical Education Arena to receive her Doctor of Philosophy degree in the Department Administration of Justice.
She had penned her dissertation on veterans who served gallantly during Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom and their post-combat involvement in criminal activity.
It was aptly titled “An Analysis of the Resiliency and Criminal Justice Involvement of Combat Veterans.”
The conversation that Jones had with the veteran sparked her interest in the more than 21 million veterans in the United States – according to the Census Bureau’s 2014 figures – who find themselves caught up in a bureaucratic labyrinth that they can’t seem to navigate.
This veteran, whom Jones befriended, had spent more than 30 years in prison and lost his right to vote. “He said, ‘I’m on paper until about 2040. I’m already in my 60s and I’ll never be able to vote again.’”
Jones, a veteran herself, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at 17. She served four years of active duty and was honorably discharged in 1998. Consumed by compassion, she couldn’t believe what she’d heard and wanted to do something about it. The man had paid his dues, she said, but that wasn’t enough.
“The first job that he got when he was released from prison is the same job that he’s still on. He’s constantly getting promoted. He’s been on the job about seven or eight years,” she said.
“For me, that just took my breath away,” Jones continued. “You have a Vietnam veteran that was drafted, served his country, and came back… so [they] turn to drugs and alcohol, crime, because of the things that they’d experienced and were exposed to in Vietnam.”
If the man’s criminal record can’t be expunged, he’d never be able to vote, she pointed out. “He’s served his time, served his country. He’s a law-abiding citizen and no longer can gain his right to vote.”
Jones had traded Memphis for Houston in 2011 in search of a new perspective, to pursue her doctorate, and to secure a decent job in her chosen field. She’d already earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of Memphis after concluding her service in the U.S.M.C.
But something was stirring in Jones. She sought to right what she deemed to be wrong with the treatment of veterans. She studied law, served as a paralegal, and worked for the county attorney’s office in Memphis.
“My goal was to get involved in law some kind of way,” said Jones, who was raised by her mother, Teresa McGlothlin.
While working at a homeless facility for veterans in Houston, for example, Jones noticed the challenges they were confronted with. Crime had run amok among the veterans and mental illness was pervasive.  
“You have a lot of decorated soldiers that are homeless,” she said, “because they’ve become involved in the criminal justice system. Now you have Purple Heart [recipients] sleeping in homeless shelters.”
Jones currently works as a program coordinator in Houston for Catholic Charities in the Pathways to Hope/Lotus Project program to help women veterans regain their “resiliency” and “self-sufficiency.”
In 2015, she interned as a policy associate with State Sen. Rodney Glenn Ellis’s Texas Legislative Internship Program during the 84th Texas Legislative Session and focused on legislation that impacted veterans.
“The first thing they did was placed me with a policy firm that allowed me to focus specifically on veterans legislation,” said Jones, who testified several times before the Texas House and Senate on behalf of veterans.
“I got opportunities to meet a lot of legislators and they began to defer to me about veterans,” she added.
Jones attends national conferences across the country to learn more about veterans. She served three terms on the Texas Veteran Commission Funds for Veteran Assistance and was the first African American and first female to be elected chairman and vice-chairman of the board.
She also is active in the Houston Branch NAACP, where she serves as vice-chairman of the Armed Forces Committees. Her short-term goal is to move to Washington, D.C. to lobby for veterans.
“I would like to be a part of the Senate one day,” said Jones, hoping someday to toss her hat into the political ring. “Who knows?”

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