Williamson County Commissioner, Cook: Spotlight on Transformative Justice

In 2018, a program began in Williamson County to divert young adults ages 17 to 24 charged with non-violent crimes, such as drug charges, from the mainstream criminal justice system to services that meet their needs. development and help them make sound decisions to develop a solid foundation. for adulthood.

Judge Stacey Mathews of the 277th District Court chairs the Transformative Justice Program, based on the model of stakeholder and community partnerships. The TJ program team includes court personnel, prosecutors from the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office, members of the defense bar, and county juvenile services personnel. The county is aggressively seeking grants for such programs to offset costs and reduce taxpayer burden. The Commissions Court is proud to partner with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and the Texas Bar Foundation to help fund this important program.

Does a community-based program led by decision-making teams improve the physical and mental health of emerging adults and reduce recidivism compared to the current criminal justice system? I interviewed two alumni of this program. I changed their real names to protect their identity.

“Laura” was born into an unstable environment in a home in downtown Michigan. Her father left the family after fathering four children in as many years. Mom, who was a heavy drinker, moved with her three children to a trailer in Georgetown, leaving a son behind. When Laura was 9, CPS removed the children from the home. She, along with the older brother and younger brother, were placed in a neighborhood house for two weeks and eventually moved to a group home for strangers. There, Laura’s mother renounced her parental rights. Later, a kind-hearted foster family adopted the three children.

Laura thrived in her first two years of high school, joining the ROTC, the Color Guard, and becoming active in community service. However, her shaky life foundation began to crumble during her first year, and she lost interest in the programs she had enjoyed so much. Lacking friends outside of her previous bands, she drifted off course. In his words, “everything became meaningless”. Then her new parents divorced and she again moved in with her adoptive father.

She started dating troubled kids and started making bad decisions. She was arrested in Leander with a bag containing drugs and paraphernalia (resulting from a group purchase) on a crime of terror charge from her younger brother who saw her being handcuffed and placed in a vehicle. police.

At the prison, JR Hancock, a defense attorney for the Transformative Justice Program and whose position is partially funded by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission grant, contacted Laura about the new program. Unbeknownst to her, Hancock was part of Laura’s adoption legal team. Recognizing the value of joining this program, Laura agreed to become one of its first clients. The next day, Laura walked out of jail to join her adoptive father and two siblings with a business card for case manager Marc Ruiz, a juvenile probation officer in the TJ program. Although she struggled to trust people, she called Ruiz, beginning a relationship that would change her life.

Ruiz has become his rock; always by his side and easily available by phone. She found that the TJ team did not condemn the slip-ups she had experienced during her time on the program, but rather looked for the root causes and helped her resolve them. Her weekly team sessions were her favorite times, and although she resisted the advice, she soon realized how important it was to appropriately address issues, such as negative self-talk, which limited its potential.

“Laura was able to build a relationship of trust with the TJ team, which is the foundation of this program,” Judge Mathews said. “I have every confidence that she can build on what she has learned and go on to build a successful and productive life for herself. She is a shining example of what a supportive second chance can do. Rather than have a felony conviction, Laura works and volunteers in her community.

I met the second participant – “Gabe”, a recent graduate of the program, one afternoon. Born in Georgetown, Gabe grew up elsewhere in Williamson County in a large family close to their Baptist community. The youngest of five children, he attended church on Sundays and Wednesdays. When he was in college, he lost his father, with whom he was very close, succumbing to an infection following a relatively routine heart operation. The family was financially secure thanks to their father’s planning; however, Gabe felt his mother was in a grief haze of forgetfulness, odd behavior, and not of herself. It took doctors a year to diagnose a brain tumor. While still in high school, his mother was treated with chemotherapy to hopefully shrink the tumor, causing a real brain fog. Gabe quit acting and sports, but increasingly used marijuana, while maintaining good grades. He missed his father and he was stressed for his mother.

Two years and two operations later, his mother died. Gabe completed his first year, then took the GED, and with the experience he gained in his school’s culinary program, he became employed in the restaurant industry. One day he was arrested for erratic driving while vaping marijuana and was arrested for criminal possession and driving under the influence.

While taking him to jail, officers mentioned the TJ program and encouraged him to apply, but he thought it sounded too good to be true. He was incarcerated in the county jail and spent one night there. The next morning, he meets Terence Davis, program director, and Ruiz. They persuaded him and he agreed to join. Unlike Laura, he had no problem sharing in group therapy or with a counselor. His problem was giving up marijuana, and over the next six months he slipped a lot – so much so that he was at risk of being placed in a drug treatment center. Fortunately, he realized what it took to make meaningful changes and quit using marijuana. Designing the TJ program allowed Ruiz to increase his time with him and help Gabe develop tactics to recognize his stress points and make appropriate adjustments.

“Gabe is a great example of our commitment to the TJ program that we won’t let you down,” Judge Mathews said. “You have to be willing to put in the work to be successful. Now Gabe will pay it forward and become a program mentor. »

Today, there are 29 young adults in the program. Since its inception, nine people have failed to complete the program and 17 have graduated.

“We know this program helps young adults,” Mathews said. “I am proud to be able to work with such a great team during the legal process to make a difference in the lives of young adults. I hope this work can be replicated to provide an option for more young people.

Researchers from Texas A&M, Harvard, and the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston are collecting data on the program, who is in the program, and who has chosen and will follow the traditional prison path up to five years. Now we are waiting.

Terry Cook is county commissioner for Precinct 1, which includes most of Round Rock, most of Austin in Williamson County, and part of southern Cedar Park.

Terry Cook

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