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Spotlight on transformative justice

Column by Commissioner Cook

  • 19 May 2022
  • Author: Doris Sanchez
  • Number of views: 789
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for case manager Marc Ruiz, a juvenile probation officer with the TJ program. Although she struggled with trusting people, she called Ruiz, beginning a relationship that would be life-changing.Ruiz became her rock; always having her back and readily available by phone.  She found the TJ team didn’t condemn the slips she experienced during her time in the program, but instead sought the root causes and helped her address those. Her weekly team sessions were her favorite times, and while she resisted counseling, she soon realized how important it was to deal appropriately with issues, such as negative self-talk, which limited her potential.

“Laura was able to build a relationship of trust with the TJ Team, which is the foundation of this program,” said Judge Mathews. “I have every confidence that she can take what she has learned and continue to build a successful and productive life. She is a shining example of what being given a supportive second chance can do. Rather than having a felony conviction, Laura is employed and volunteering 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 Church community. The youngest of five children, he attended church on Sundays and Wednesdays. When he was in middle school, he lost his dad, with whom he was very close, succumbing to an infection following relatively routine heart surgery. The family was financially secure because of their dad’s planning; however, Gabe felt his mom was in a grief fog of forgetfulness, odd behavior and not herself. It took one year for doctors to diagnose a brain tumor. While he was still in high school, his mother was treated with chemotherapy to hopefully shrink the tumor causing true brain fog. Gabe quit theatre and sports, but increasingly used marijuana, all while maintaining good grades. He was missing his dad and stressing about his mom.

Two years and two surgeries later, his mom died. Gabe finished his junior year, then passed the GED, and with the experience he gained in his school’s culinary program, became employed in the restaurant trade. One day he was stopped for erratic driving while vaping marijuana and was arrested for felony possession and driving under the influence.

While taking him to jail, the officers mentioned the TJ Program and encouraged him to apply, but he thought it sounded too good to be true. He was booked into the county jail and spent one night. The next morning, he met Terence Davis, director of the program, 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, slipped quite a bit – so much that he was facing placement in a drug treatment center. Fortunately, he realized what it took to make meaningful change and stopped using marijuana. The design of 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 in the TJ Program that we won’t give up on you,” said Judge Mathews. “You must be willing to put in the work needed to be successful. Now Gabe is going to pay-it-forward and become a mentor with the program.”

Today there are 29 young adults in the program. Since its inception, nine individuals were unsuccessful in completing the program and 17 have graduated.

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

Researchers at Texas A&M, Harvard and the University of Texas Health Science Center-Houston are gathering data on the program, the individuals in the program and those who chose the traditional jail route and will track them for outcomes up to five years. Now we wait.

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