By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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"I'm starting to feel that you're taking advantage of my good nature," Myers, crossing her arms, tells Cristina. "There's a waiting list of women in jail who want to come to STAR Court, but we can only take 35. You really need to be working this program, and if you're not willing, then maybe you should be on regular probation."
Cristina, her dark hair pulled back into a low ponytail, looks stricken. "Please don't give up on me," she says, clasping her hands. "Please don't."
"No more excuses," Myers replies. "You've filled your head with all of this nonsense about why you can't do this or that. You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it. We're here to help you, but you've got to do your part. Otherwise, at some point, the giver just gives out." She pauses. "You know what you need to do, and in the next two weeks you really need to show me that you want to be here."
"It hurts me when I see you falling behind. Do you know that?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do," Cristina says.
"I want you to write me a paper and tell me where you see yourself in five years, where you want to be and how you want to get there," Myers says. The room is dead quiet. "You need to have a vision. You need to see yourself doing great. Will you do that?" The women return her gaze. Some say "yes." Others nod.
Myers, a Republican and a graduate of Baylor Law School, spent 12 years as a prosecutor. Like most assistant district attorneys, initially she was strict about staying personally removed from defendants and leaving a case behind as soon as it was finished. But in the early '90s she grew more interested in the impact of crime and social problems on society as a whole—especially when it came to female offenders, many of whom had children. She joined a task force dedicated to evaluating the unique issues facing female offenders and became passionate about the ways the justice system treated women (at one point the policy group—since disbanded—attempted to move incarcerated women to facilities closer to their families). Myers says her zeal for working with female offenders is in part what drove her to run for judge, eventually taking the bench in 1995. Almost 15 years later, she jumped at the chance to preside over STAR Court. Even so, the new role didn't come easily to her.
On top of balancing her criminal docket with the duties of crafting a mission statement and assembling a team that included an assistant district attorney, public defender, probation officer, therapist and drug rehab counselor, Myers had to learn how to reach women who seemed beyond hope. On the first day of STAR Court in the summer of 2008, Myers wore her black robe and addressed the first four participants, including Diane, from the bench. It didn't go well. The women regarded her warily, arms crossed over their chests. She didn't think they'd show the following week, but they did. This time she took off her robe, stepped down from the bench in plain clothes and talked to the women on their level. They began to open up, talk about their situations and listen to what she had to say, so she's done it that way ever since.
"For a judge to say, 'You're going to jail' just doesn't work," Myers says. "They can do jail time standing on their heads. What they really need is someone to lift them up, to give them a bus pass."
Still, it's challenging for the judge when women work hard only to relapse, and she has no illusions about the hard road back from addiction and prostitution. To fortify herself against pessimism—something she often cautions the STAR Court women against—Myers thinks about the graduates who are attending school or working jobs. She recalls one day when a participant's son drove his mother to court for a private meeting with the judge, and the three of them sat and talked. As Myers listened, the mother apologized to her son for physically abusing him when he was a child. He listened, told his mother he forgave her, and then hugged Myers and thanked her for helping his mother.
"I know I'm not going to save all of them, but if I can help one family, it's worth it," Myers says. "These women are in the program because they want to be, because they want to become productive members of society. And why wouldn't everyone want that for them?"
Just how many former prostitutes are succeeding in fashioning new lives for themselves through programs like STAR Court is unclear. Only five have finished Dallas' 15-month felony court program, and 35 are in it now. Preliminary data on the city's Prostitute Diversion Initiative, the police-led effort, shows that of 101 women who chose treatment over the past two years, 21 remain clean and sober and out of prostitution. The data for the first year shows that 90 percent of those who completed the initial 45-day treatment program remain drug-free and haven't re-offended.