Williamson County Commissioner Cook: Spotlight on transformative justice (statesman.com)
In 2018, a program began in Williamson County diverting young adults ages 17 to 24 accused of nonviolent felonies, such as drug charges, from the traditional criminal justice system to services that address their development needs and help them make wise decisions to develop a strong foundation for adulthood.
Judge Stacey Mathews of the 277th District Court presides over the Transformative Justice Program, based on the model of stakeholder and community partnerships. The TJ program team includes court staff, prosecutors from the Williamson County’s district attorney’s office, members of the defense bar and county's Juvenile Services staff. The county aggressively seeks grant-funding for such programs to offset costs and reduce the burden on the taxpayer. The Commissioners Court proudly partners with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and the Texas Bar Foundation to help us fund this important program.
Does a community-based program led by decision-making teams improve emerging adults’ physical and mental health and reduce recidivism compared to the current criminal justice system? I interviewed two alums of this program. I changed their real names to protect their identities.
“Laura” was born into an unstable environment in a Michigan inner-city home. Her father left the family after fathering four children in as many years. Mom, who drank heavily, moved with her three kids to a trailer home in Georgetown, leaving one son behind. When Laura was 9, CPS removed the kids from the home. She, along with the older and younger brother, were placed in a neighborhood home for two weeks and ultimately moved to a group home of strangers. While there, Laura’s mom gave up her parental rights. Later, a foster family with big hearts adopted the three children.
Laura thrived in her first two years of high school, joining ROTC, the Color Guard and becoming active in community service. However, her fragile life foundation began crumbling during her junior year, and she lost interest in the programs she had so enjoyed. Lacking friends outside of her prior groups, she drifted. In her words, “everything became meaningless.” Then her new parents divorced, and she moved again with her adoptive dad.
She started associating with troubled kids and began making poor decisions. She was arrested in Leander with a bag containing drugs and paraphernalia (the result of a group purchase) on a felony charge to the terror of her younger brother who witnessed her being handcuffed and placed in a police vehicle.
At the jail, J.R. 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 early clients. The next day Laura walked out of jail to her adoptive dad and her two siblings with a business card<