State District Judge Robert Francis presides over Re-entry Court.
State District Judge Robert Francis presides over Re-entry Court.
Nancy Newberry

Clean Time

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.

Her story caused him to reflect on his own career, he tells the others. "Everyday, I send people to prison, and it ain't that much fun. Some people have to go; they hurt other people and do bad things. But a lot of people just have addiction problems and just need to be treated," he says. "Someday I am going to have to answer to somebody about my own soul, and I can say, 'Well, I sentenced three people to death. And I sent hundreds of people to thousands of years in prison.' But I would much rather say that somebody who was in my court was a success."

He takes a beat. "Ms. Watson?"

"Yes, sir," replies a woman on the back row.

"Do you see yourself as a success in my court?"

"Yes, sir," says Watson, a recent graduate from Re-entry Court.

He smiles. "Right there is one more than I ever had before."

Francis must now deal with his less successful probationers: one man who picked up a new case but is fighting it, another who relapsed over a bad relationship.

"Now y'all listen up," the judge says. "Things are going to happen. You're going to break up with your boyfriend and girlfriend, get divorced; people are going to die--those are facts of life. Three weeks ago, my best friend was killed in a car wreck; a few days ago, an attorney who has been my mentor and a good friend died--I just got back from his memorial service; and my dad has just been diagnosed with a debilitating disease. None of that would be an excuse for me to get mad at people and send them to prison. And none of it is an excuse for anyone to relapse."

Francis begins to work the room like a tent revivalist, searching the gallery for those willing to offer testimony and help him convert the first-timers. "I want you to succeed. Ask anyone out there. Mr. McCall--he didn't like me much to begin with, but I think he would tell you I am all right now."

Jason McCall began the program dark, brooding and rebellious. Now he is a symbol of transformation. "I realized I didn't want to be an outlaw anymore," he says later. "Just coming down here week after week, finally I had to choose: Do right or do wrong."

Judge Francis claims the change occurs, if it does, about six months into the program. "I expect that a light is going to click on in your head," he tells the first-timers. "And you are going to go, 'Something is better than it was when I was running and hiding.'"

Rey Flores, who manages the program for the probation department, believes it works because addicts finally get the attention they have lacked all their lives. Those who go through SAFPF have a 65 percent chance of relapsing, reoffending or absconding. "Our statistics show that those who go through Re-entry Court reoffend at a rate approximately three times less than those [SAFPF] probationers who don't go through our program."

It's a given, however, that drug addicts will relapse. For those who do, Re-entry Court is a court of second, third and fourth chances, employing a continuum of sanctions--from more treatment to more pen time--for those who relapse. To motivate addicts to meet the program's three goals of no relapse, no new cases and a job that has "career potential," Judge Francis will reduce fines, cut court costs and release them from probation earlier than scheduled.

"What you can get out of this is a better life," he tells them. "Do you know what I can get out of it?"

After an awkward pause someone shouts, "Your soul."

"Other than my soul," the judge says. "I get nothing. I am volunteering my time. And so is everybody else who helps with this court...We have been doing this for a year and a half, and let me tell you, nobody else cares." (Francis is trying to make the Legislature care by collecting statistics that will show his program is reducing crime and saving taxpayers money. So far, the Legislature hasn't shown much interest.) "Do you know why nobody cares?"

No one responds.

"Because the people of Dallas County think drugs are..."

All respond. "Bad!"

"And the people who use them are..."


"And the people who sell them are..."


"And need to be..."

"In jail!"

"No one is pulling for you out here but me...and I use this job to pay my mortgage and my bills and to make sure my kids have a place to eat and sleep. It's not something I take lightly. So if I am willing to risk it all for you, I expect you to bust your butt for me." He searches the gallery. "Mr. Taylor, how do I feel about benchwarmers on my team?"

"You don't like them."

"I got no use for benchwarmers. If your weekly report says you are doing the minimum, dragging your butt and just getting by, you may not be meeting my expectations, but it's you who's choosing not to make a better life for yourself."

It's 5:15 and the judge looks weary. With the funeral, it's been a long day. "Anything I left out, Mr. McCall?"

"No, sir."

"Mr. Thomas?"

"No, sir."

"Mr. Thomas, next time I see you in court, I want you wearing long pants rather than shorts."

"I didn't know, your honor. Every other time I been in court, I was wearing a long, white jumper."

The judge laughs. Everybody else laughs. Everybody else has worn a long, white jumper.


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