Jennifer Peña: "We should be giving folks more than one chance."
Jennifer Peña is currently running for a seat on the bench in the 290thDistrict Court of Bexar County. As a former juvenile detention officer, Peña advocates for proper rehabilitative justice, allowing non-violent, juvenile offenders to receive a second chance from the court. It was because of this experience that Peña chose to run for office. She hopes to transform the way her community views non-violent offenders, believing that 290thDistrict Court does not currently make a positive impact on its constituents, stating “we could do better; the criminal justice system could do better.” This isn’t the first time Peña has approached this issue; she ran for the same seat on the bench four years ago but was unsuccessful. Now she has come back, fighting harder than ever for the same purpose: giving folks a second chance.
Peña witnessed domestic violence in her home starting at a young age. After her parents divorced, her mother entered what Peña considered to be an abusive relationship. Eventually, Peña rebelliously decided to move out of her mother’s house to escape the constant fighting, and move in with her father in Yorktown, Texas. Upon entering her freshman year in high school, which only consisted of 56 people, Peña felt the pressure of lacking diversity. Particularly, she felt singled out as one of the only Democratic, Mexican-American students in her community which maintained a Conservative, Anglo-American majority.. However, Peña regained her confidence after voting in a mock election. During her time in high school, President Bill Clinton (then Governor Bill Clinton) began his first presidential campaign. In response, her campus crafted a mock election where they would vote for or against the candidates for president. As a Democrat on a Conservative-majority campus, she quickly became one of the only avid supporters of Clinton during the mock election. It was the first time Peña was exposed to politics. After completing high school, Peña was encouraged to attend college, where she would eventually enroll in the University of Texas; she was the first from her family to attend college. During her undergraduate education, she also began working as a juvenile detention officer at a local institution. There, she was able to witness the what she feels were the “faults” in the criminal justice system. Peña felt as if she could create an impact on transforming the rehabilitative process for non-violent offenders and decided to attend pursue a Juris Doctor at St. Mary’s School of Law. The first time Peña ran for office was four years ago. She ran for the bench seat representing the 290th District Court of Bexar County, the seat she is currently running for again. Though this is her second time running for the same position, Peña’s platform hasn’t changed. She wants to promote education and drug treatment for non-violent offenders, not incarceration. She said the greatest issue afflicting Bexar County is drug abuse. Defendants these issues with them into the courts and probation, allowing them to complete deferred programs but ending up as felons when they don’t fully succeed. Peña says, “we need to do a better job of trying to help young people complete these steps. It could be the first time they are given structure – they don’t know how to deal with that.” She wants to decrease the number of people entering society with felonies on their records, especially young offenders. Peña believes that systemic barriers exist that prevent women from entering the political scene. She feels that the public has a stronger opinion on what women should or shouldn’t do than they have of men. People wondered why she wasn’t married and frequently asked “what her problem was.” Peña feels that people expect to get married and have babies but she pulled away from that lifestyle. She knew at a young age, seeing the abuse she saw, that she wanted to be completely in charge of her life when she was older. Even though she knows these barriers exist, Peña pursued a career in politics anyways. She pushes for other women to be more politically active without fear of repercussions.