In her last semester at St. Edward’s University, Leah Pinney ’05 interned with the ACLU of Texas, which shared an office with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
“There was a lot of organizing and advocacy going on at TCJC, and I helped with anything they needed,” Pinney says. “Their commitment and passion were tremendously inspiring.”
When her internship ended, TCJC offered Pinney a job as a youth justice researcher. After taking on various roles at the nonprofit, she became its executive director in 2015. Six years later, she transitioned the organization to become the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, a name that better reflects its mission. TCJE advocates at the Texas Capitol and across the state to end mass incarceration, shift funding toward community support and reduce racial inequities in Texas’ punishment system.
Pinney, who majored in Political Science, says her education and the culture of St. Edward’s shaped how she thinks about justice work.
“Students were encouraged to be responsive to the needs of others, to engage in building a just world,” she says. “St. Ed’s is about broadening perspectives and learning from the experiences of others throughout history to create just communities today.”
Pinney is proud that in 2021, TCJE persuaded the Texas Legislature to change the law to allow formerly incarcerated parents to get their kids back.
“When a parent is incarcerated, even for something unrelated to a child, their rights can be terminated and their children placed under state custody,” Pinney explains. “Prior to this bill, there wasn’t a way for kids to return home. This family reunification legislation creates a path for parents that meet certain criteria to petition the court to regain custody.”
Pinney believes that spending public money on services to support community health and equity instead of incarceration creates safer and more just communities. TCJE was part of a coalition that helped Houston establish Texas’ first-ever Youth Justice Community Reinvestment Fund in 2022, diverting $2 million from the probation department into local services for case management, hot meals, tutoring and counseling for 80 children released from juvenile detention during the pandemic.
Pinney's Vision for Texas
- Reduce the state’s reliance on incarceration by investing in systems that build safe and healthy communities equitably.
- Expand prevention, healing and restoration through mental health support, healthcare, equitable education, gainful employment and sustainable housing.
- End the lifelong impact of conviction and give Texans the ability to clear their records to improve their stability and self-sufficiency.
She first became involved in criminal justice reform because she wanted to make a difference for those who had been marginalized, who had giant obstacles in their path and who needed a chance to build a better life. Now, as TCJE’s leader, Pinney focuses on supporting others doing that work.
“I think about where we are today and new leaders rising, and I have a renewed sense of inspiration,” she says. “We have an amazing team, and I have a lot of hope for what they’ll do to advance justice and equity in Texas.”
By Melanie Padgett Powers