Justice of the Peace Susan Steeg Candidate Questionnaire
What actions have you taken to improve your community?
· Juvenile Case Management Program – During the first couple of years in office, I saw hundreds of families who needed help finding health and social services to assist their families. Although Travis County had been collecting dedicated funding for this purpose, no programs were established in any of the JP courts. I was able to gain Commissioner Court approval to hire a case manager who is an LMSW and together we have developed a nationally recognized restorative justice and mediation program that assists families to decrease chronic absenteeism, increase school attendance and graduation, and provide the best opportunities for the student’s education. See Journal of Juvenile Justice at page 123: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/249190.pdf for a peer-reviewed article on data from my program.
· Affordable Housing – I am a Homebuilder (sustaining member) of Foundation Communities. I advocated before the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN) for a new FC apartment complex in Oak Hill. OHAN supported the expansion and the Live Oak Trails apartments opened in December 2016 less than a quarter mile from the court. My office supported a formerly homeless family that moved into the apartments and provided them with linens, kitchenware, cleaning supplies, etc. to welcome them to our community.
· Education – I am member and past-president of the Rotary Club of Southwest Austin which supports literacy and works with Title I schools including Oak Hill, Patton, and St. Elmo elementary schools by distributing dictionaries, atlases, and thesauruses as well as contributing to book fairs so all students can participate, regardless of household income. I have also tutored students at the Foundation Community Learning Center at Southwest Trails.
· Public transportation – When I took office, the Precinct 3 offices were not served by public transportation. In addition to the Justice Court, Travis County Health and Human Services operates a site with housing assistance, WIC clinic, food bank, clothes closet, and other services. CommUnity Care Oak Hill is also on site providing primary care. I advocated getting CapMetro services in the region. Under the new Connect 2025 plan, CapMetro proposes to eliminate services to Precinct 3. This includes not just the bus service but also the MetroAccess service to persons with disabilities. I have opposed this change and advocated for continued service by writing letters to officials and providing testimony to the CapMetro Board.
· Technology – When I took office in 2007, the Justice Courts used MS-DOS and other software that was decades old. I lead the modernization of all five courts to cloud-based technology. Judge Sarah Eckhardt has recognized me as the “Champion of Innovation” in the JP Courts.
· Disability Rights – I piloted a program with Parking Mobility, a nonprofit operated by disabled persons to enhance access in their daily lives through enforcement of parking laws and education. The program has since been implemented county-wide and beyond.
How would you define the role of a Justice of the Peace in the community?
· To rule with fairness, dignity, and respect for all individuals and the law.
· To operate the court efficiently and effectively so people before the court can have a timely resolution of their case.
· To work with the community and public institutions to foster educational achievement, support affordable housing, and improve public transportation.
What is your stance on criminalization of truancy?
Until 2015, Texas law criminalized truancy by a student. I applied this law using restorative justice and mediation techniques and as an opportunity for intervention. Truancy laws are a vital intervention tool to reduce chronic absenteeism by bringing everyone to the table and finding the best solution for each individual student to complete their education. Often school districts are limited in their ability to find the best alternative for a student, whether that is recommending an alternative school system to account for the student’s personal circumstances or, at a minimum, stressing the importance of a GED.
In 2015, the Texas Legislature considered many bills that would decriminalize truancy. I was in favor of the approach taken in House Bill 2632 which decriminalized truancy and was passed by the House of Representatives. I testified to the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee on May 6, 2015 against Senate Bill 106 and in favor of the approach in HB 2632. See http://tlchouse.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=37&clip_id=11126 at 3:07:36 for my testimony.
When I became Justice of the Peace in 2007, Failure to Attend School was a Class C misdemeanor that could be filed against a student age 12 or older. In 2015, the Texas Judicial Council, led by ultra-conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, made decriminalization of truancy one of its top priorities, and he likened truancy to “playing hooky.” See http://www.txcourts.gov/media/738064/DecriminalizingFailure2AttendSchool.pdf.
In response to an editorial Chief Justice Hecht wrote equating truancy with “playing hooky,” I responded by writing an viewpoint to inform the public about chronic absenteeism and ask for a collaborative approach for truancy reform. There had been no stakeholder process to develop legislation that would ensure decriminalization would not result in an increase in chronic absenteeism. See http://www.mystatesman.com/news/opinion/steeg-truancy-more-than-playing-hooky/FOyznz6xsi8UMxjsGObeIJ/. This article was published on February 26, 2015, before any decriminalization legislation had been filed.
Senate Bill 106 passed the Senate but was killed in House committee. Testifying in favor of Senate Bill 106 in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee was the right-wing think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. See Witness List, Senate Bill 106: http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/84R/witlistbill/pdf/SB00106S.pdf#navpanes=0. This is the same organization that believes “[Betsy] DeVos has the right idea” with regards to privatizing education and I do not think I’ve ever agreed with their right-wing policy agenda. I testified against Senate Bill 106 (for the reasons in my May 6, 2015 testimony cited above). Senate Bill 106 was ultimately passed when a previously passed House bill was hijacked during the last week of the legislative session.
The National Association of Social Workers (Texas Chapter) honored me as its “2015 Public Elected Official of the Year” largely because of my work in truancy cases, saying, “Judge Steeg’s court is a model of what we, as social workers, want in place for children and their families struggling with truancy” and “Judge Steeg’s many procedural innovations have not only pushed the envelope of service delivery, but also have paved a road of proven evidence based practices in this growing field.”
What state policies would you like to see in place to address racial justice?
As a Jewish Lesbian, I am a member of two legally protected classes, one of which is still facing legal discrimination (LGBTQ). Racial and social justice will only be achieved by state policies that provide equality to all in our state, including economic and educational reform (e.g. raising the minimum wage to a living wage, providing affordable housing, supporting graduation for all students and support for post-secondary education/professional/technical training, and providing affordable child care).
What actions have you taken on racial justice?
As Justice of the Peace, I can have an impact on education through my responsibilities to enforce school attendance laws, which I accomplish with careful consideration of a student’s individual circumstances and their best opportunities for success. Education is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society. I believe education opens the doors to economic opportunity, housing stability, and social equality.
My court handles matters involving social and economic inequality, e.g. eviction and debt collection cases. I am sensitive to the daily social and economic discrimination faced by communities of color and I consider individual circumstances when making a ruling. I treat all people who come before my court with dignity and respect.
I established the first juvenile case management program in Travis County. I have had a bilingual social worker as the director of my “I Can Do It” truancy prevention program since 2012. He works directly with families who have children with chronic absenteeism; he provides counseling in the schools to students, to parents of school-age children who are incarcerated at the Del Valle County Jail, and to parents and caregivers. The Court’s program also refers families to community resources.
I was recognized for my innovation as the “2015 Public Elected Official of the Year” by the Texas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, a professional association committed to social justice.
How would you work with indigent residents who owe fines or have civil judgments against them but who do not have the financial resources to pay?
A person who is indigent may have the fine or costs in a criminal case discharged through community service, or waived entirely if the person is unable to perform community service. I first reinforce for the person the real value of community service, i.e. that it is not a punishment but time you give back to improve the community and yourself. I strive for a holistic approach to community service assignments centered on the person’s individual circumstances. If I have a parent of a school child, I ask if he or she has time to volunteer at the child’s school. If someone likes sports, I refer them to volunteer opportunities at their local recreational centers.
In a civil case, the court has no authority to order a person to pay a judgment. Under Texas law, many debtors are “judgment proof”, i.e. the person’s property and certain income cannot be seized by creditors through legal processes such as garnishment, execution, or attachment. Texas law protects a person’s home, one vehicle, household items, and tools of the trade.
What is your stance on criminalizing homelessness through criminalizing sleeping in public, panhandling, loitering, and other activities associated with homelessness?
As I described above in my truancy prevention work, homelessness is just the symptom of underlying issues such as poverty, lack of mental health services, substance dependency, etc. Those are the issues that should be addressed. Homelessness should not be criminalized. I do not see these cases in my court since most are violations of city ordinances that are filed in the City of Austin Municipal Courts.
What is your view of how the criminal justice system should handle the problems associated with drug and alcohol addiction?
One must look at the reasons and interrelated causes for the dependency. Some addictions are chemical and some are psychological. I am not an expert in this field, but I believe the criminal justice system should limit incarceration whenever possible to those who have been convicted and are a threat to others (e.g. sociopaths). Treatment and rehabilitation should be provided to non-dangerous offenders as quickly as possible. I have been a member of the prison reform and prisoner support organization CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) since it was founded in Austin in the 1970s and have been a Life Member of National CURE, which was founded to lobby Congress for the rights of those in prison.
How should a Justice of the Peace deal with a person who appears before the court who is suspected of being or determined to be undocumented?
The Justice Court is open and welcoming to all members of the community. There is no determination made of a person’s immigration status. A person who is undocumented has the right to file civil suits and defend himself/herself in litigation. The Court is required to provide court-certified interpreters, and I have had a variety of languages in my court, including Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic.
In the criminal docket, the Court regularly processes traffic tickets for Mexican nationals without the necessity of determining immigration status.
I also see students and parents on the school docket who are undocumented. Through my truancy prevention program, my staff social worker (who is bilingual) provides counseling and referral services as appropriate to assist the families to overcome the obstacles faced in their daily lives that have an adverse impact on school attendance.
How are you funding your campaign?
I am fundraising both small and large contributions from the community. My donors are reported on my Campaign Finance Reports, which I have filed since 2006. I have never had an opponent in a primary election, so my fundraising was for the general election. I defeated the incumbent Republican in the 2006 general election and a Tea Party Republican in 2010. I did not actively fundraise in 2014 because the Republicans did not nominate an opposing candidate. I have also used some personal funds to supplement my fundraising as reported in my Campaign Finance Reports. http://www.traviscountyclerk.org/eclerk/Content.do?code=E.21
If there were one thing you could accomplish immediately, what would it be?
After serving 11 years as Justice of the Peace, I have accomplished many things, including establishing the juvenile case management program in the justice courts and updating the court technology from MS-DOS to the cloud. One of my goals is to streamline the indigency determination process, which currently requires JP3 customers to go to the county tax office on Airport Blvd. for legally-required screening. I am working with the tax office to improve access and see how screenings could be done on-site at JP3 to eliminate the time, traffic, inconvenience, and inefficiency of the current process.
What is your campaign strategy for winning?
I have been a successful candidate in three election cycles. I turned JP3 from Red to Blue when I defeated a Republican incumbent in 2006, and then a Tea Party Republican challenger in 2010. In 2014, my only opposition was a Libertarian. I will continue my successful grassroots strategy to inform the voters about my experience, qualifications, community service, and dedication to improving our community.
What spending would you advocate increasing or decreasing while in office?
As Justice of the Peace, my office has no legislative authority to determine the funding for local, state, or federal programs. However, as JP I have improved services for our residents through the strategic management of the resources made available to the court and have gone further to seek new sources of funds.
The funding for the juvenile case management program I established came from a dedicated fee that the county was collecting but remained untapped. When I learned about this dedicated fund, I helped use the large reserve of several hundred thousand dollars to staff these positions in the Justice Courts. The positions were important to fill, though it was known that the annual revenues would not cover the annual costs, so the reserve would be depleted over a period of 8-10 years. I strongly advocate that the county continue to fully fund these positions in each of the Justice Courts.