From Historic Third Ward to Harvard: The Next Generation of Academic Justice Reformers
Dr. Whitney Threadcraft-Walker, 34, grew up in Houston’s Historic Third Ward - a neighborhood so close to downtown that the massive office towers where high income professionals work literally casts a shadow over the tiny row houses of its historically-marginalized residents.
It is a part of Houston where power and poverty share a common boundary but share little else. The child of college-educated parents, Whitney experienced inner-city Houston from a unique vantage point.
Dr. Walker says she knew a lot of people who had negative experiences with the criminal justice system.
“They were people who had formerly been incarcerated,” she said.
She was struck by the uneven administration of justice when it came to African Americans. Her experiences as a child are still with her as an adult.
“We have some amazing police officers in Houston, and I still get scared when I have a police officer behind me,” she said.
“I decided to use my talents in statistics and research to make the system more equitable.”
Statistics tell a story that most people don’t know. For example, in Harris County, 75% of the inmates being held have not been convicted of a crime. They’re simply sitting in jail awaiting a chance to prove they’re innocent. They have not been released on bond. The majority, 75% of them, are people of color.
Dr. Walker earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Houston – Downtown in 2011 and a master’s degree from the same institution in 2012. She earned her Ph.D. from Texas Southern University in 2017, where she studied administration of justice. To say she’s driven is an understatement - she graduated from the doctoral program in three years and defended her dissertation just nine days after giving birth.
She has worked with the Harris County Bail project to improve the handling of people who are released from jail and are awaiting trial.
Dr. Howard Henderson, the founding director of the TSU Center for Justice Research and professor of justice administration, immediately recognized her potential and chose her as his graduate assistant.
“When you’ve spent time working in these spaces, you know what skill sets are necessary for change. Whitney had what it took to make a difference. Her work ethic, grit and eye for strategic reform is just what we need more of.”
After reviewing her application, Henderson instinctively knew she was the right student to help identify the best approaches for an equity-based criminal justice reform model.
“He said if you learn this skill you will be able to remove unnecessary barriers for the traditionally disenfranchised while at the same time, you will help change the trajectory of your family,” Walker said. “He threw a data set at me. He gave me the data and I learned research and statistics with his hands-on approach, through trial and error as opposed to through the traditional textbook model.”
That was in 2014. In 2020 Harvard University also recognized her talent. She is now a government innovation fellow for Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab at the time when the American criminal justice system is under the microscope. This fall she also began her academic career as an assistant professor at the University of Houston-Downtown.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has resulted in overwhelming support for change. Walker believes this is a time when people are willing to take a serious look at changing the system and says research can support the argument for the necessary systematic changes.
“People have valid concerns with the criminal justice system, and this gives us an opportunity to hit a hard reset,” she said.
It is why she’s excited about her work with the Kennedy School and the University of Houston-Downtown.
“Embracing research has allowed us to move criminal justice from subjective assumptions to a science,” Walker said.
She says data can show where mistakes are being made, often times unintentionally.
“We have all sorts of blind spots,” Walker said.
She says it’s possible to reflect reality through statistical analysis and provide our leaders with the information they need to feel comfortable changing the system, and that is what she’ll be focusing on as a Harvard fellow and as a new assistant professor.
“People are empowered to make better decisions and my experience with the Center for Justice Research has better prepared me for today’s reformatory movement,” she said.