Apr 1, 2024 - News

Cornyn takes inspiration from Texas farm that employs felons for federal bill

A man in a suit petting a goat

Sen. John Cornyn hangs out with the Bonton goats. Photo: Naheed Rajwani-Dharsi/Axios

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) hopes South Dallas' Bonton Farms will be a template for improving other communities across the country.

Why it matters: The farm has tried addressing food insecurity in southern Dallas for almost a decade by selling fresh groceries and offering felons opportunities to learn skills that will help them secure a job.

Driving the news: Cornyn visited Bonton Farms last week to meet leaders from organizations that work with former prisoners and help them transition back into their communities.

  • The Republican senator says he wants to take programs like Bonton Farms and ask, "what's the secret sauce?" that makes them successful.

Flashback: Frisco businessman Daron Babcock gave up his high-paying career and established Bonton Farms, hoping to solve southern Dallas' food desert and offer jobs and training to former inmates.

  • The farm has become a staple in Dallas and an example of a way to address enduring inequities in communities.
  • The 2021 Bonton Farms Act, sponsored by former state Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), resolves inmates' outstanding traffic tickets, warrants for unpaid fines and Class C misdemeanors that require fines.
A man watering plants
Bonton Farms is one of the most idyllic places in Dallas. Photo: Naheed Rajwani-Dharsi/Axios

How it works: Bonton Farms was established on 1.25 acres. It's expanded to include a 40-acre extension site.

  • The farm's offerings are crafted around the main determinants of health, including financial stability and social support networks.
  • There's a coffee shop, restaurant and market on site. Some Dallas restaurants buy their groceries from the farm.
  • Outsiders can also volunteer.

What we're watching: Billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott announced last month that Bonton Farms will get $2 million from her open call for funding.

Between the lines: Prison time often carries a stigma that makes it hard for people to find a well-paying job and a home.

  • "You can't build enough prisons to keep people behind bars. What you've got to figure out is how to keep people out of prison," Cornyn said at a roundtable discussion last week.

What's next: Cornyn plans to introduce the Workforce Reentry Act, which would give funding to organizations with a "successful track record" of offering career development opportunities to people leaving the criminal justice system.

  • The bill would also encourage organizations working with former inmates to share best practices.
  • "This is about taking people who want to turn their lives around and giving them the skills they need to be successful," Cornyn said.

Zoom out: Several North Texas organizations provide support with job training, finding employment and securing housing in hopes of curbing recidivism.

  • Antong Lucky has been relying on his experience in state prison to run Dallas-based Urban Specialists, which aims to "disrupt toxic trends" through violence prevention and gang intervention.
  • The organization has adopted a Texas prison unit to coach inmates before their release and supports the children of incarcerated people.
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