By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The judge takes his seat behind the bench, wearing shirtsleeves, a striped tie and a bucketful of country-boy charm. "How y'all doing today?"
"Fine...OK...good...," respond the two dozen or so recovering addicts who remain seated in the gallery.
"I could be doing better," he tells them. "I just got back from the funeral of a close friend."
In any other court it would be odd--a judge sharing details from his personal life, breaking down the traditional wall between law and litigant. But few judicial trappings are in evidence in Re-entry Court, a one-of-a-kind social experiment that takes addicts who have served nine months of their probation in a prison drug treatment center (SAFPF: Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility) and attempts to smooth their entry into the community. This forward-thinking program, which convenes at the Frank Crowley Courthouse each Thursday at 3 p.m., is run by State District Judge Robert Francis, a lanky, plainspoken jurist who seems to care as much about feelings as he does about facts.
"OK, Mr. Jesse, get up here," he motions, pausing to let a 46-year-old man, who looks gray beyond his age, approach the bench. "That's the first smile I have seen from you in two weeks. Why you so down?"
"I spent some time with my daughter, and we had lost our first grandbaby, and when I saw the second the other day, it just threw me for a loss," he says. "But I have gotten my résumé together, and I have an interview with Terminix Pest Control."
"Sounds like things are working for you," the judge says, pleased Jesse has remained clean and sober.
"All I need to do is take care of my job and stay focused and take care of my part."
"You'll know that part," the judge says, jumping on the man's words to instruct the others. "Get a job, take care of business, don't use dope..."
"And-don't-run," chime in the others, as if programmed to do so.
"I thank the Lord I haven't had the desire for crack cocaine--that's my drug of choice," Jesse says. "I know I said this the last time, but I am going to do whatever it takes this time. I am the one responsible."
The judge had sent Jesse back to SAFPF after drug tests came back dirty. "Keep talking, this is the most I have been able to get out of you since we started."
"I pick up real quick, sir," he adds, growing a bit self-conscious. "But the doors are open for me now, and I need to focus. I can do the 15 months here in court. Now let me shut up because I am in a good mood now. Thank you."
The judge claps loudly, which sets off a round of applause from the others. Congratulations, a pat on the back, tools that motivate rather than punish are the working ethos of Re-entry Court. "Something happens to these people around two to three months into the program," Francis says later. "They accept the fact that I don't want to lock them up, and I want them to succeed." A field supervisor, Trina Willis meets with them as many as three to four times a week, acting as social worker and resource broker to facilitate their need for jobs, education and family ties. Public defender Larry Miller serves more as friend than advocate, easing their transition by helping them with niggling legal problems such as getting a drivers license or an apartment, frustrations that might give them the excuse to relapse.
"I am just giving them the opportunity to make their lives not suck," the judge says.
In court, Francis asks four first-timers to step forward: One seems angry; all seem confused. They have just spent nine months in prison rehab. They expected to spend another 90 days living at the Salvation Army. But nobody said anything about spending an extra 15 months with some judge who would be watching his or her every move. Francis jokingly calls them volunteers, but they have been randomly selected to participate in Re-entry Court, which is limited to 45 probationers. One first-timer claims he is not an addict; another says she's got no time for court; another that he's a five-time loser.
"There are no losers here," responds Judge Francis, who says it's now his turn to talk: He grew interested in re-entry after helping Judge John Creuzot with DIVERT Court (Dallas Initiative for Diversion and Expedited Rehabilitation and Treatment), which takes first-time drug offenders (rather than those already sentenced) and drops all charges against them after they complete a 15-month program. One graduation day, a 37-year-old woman spoke about how the program had changed her life: Addicted to cocaine, she never held a job for more than six months, never lived in the same place for more than a year and seldom kept her children for more than a few months before Child Protective Services would remove them from her custody. After going through DIVERT Court, she got a job, paid her bills, got back her kids.
"The life that sucked no longer existed," Judge Francis explains.