The motley gaggle of miscreants shuffles into the court, lining up silently in three rows on the benches. There are some 20 of them, men and women of all ages, most with long records of theft, violence and weapons misuse, and all with hardcore drug problems. I am passed their court biographies; the top one describes a man who has spent 12 years in jail, has 26 convictions over two decades and lists his “drugs of choice” as cocaine and heroin.
While Felin Bell’s fellow convicts look like they have walked straight off the set of a Hollywood crime caper, he is a portly man in a smart check shirt who could pass as a middle manager. Almost before he has sat down, he is picked out by the judge as the week’s shining star, commended for his positive attitude and sent home as a reward.
“You look surprised — you shouldn’t be,” he is told.
Already it is clear this Dallas court for drug offenders is no normal court. As proceedings unfold, it seems like therapy crossed with a reality television show. The judge doesn’t wear a robe, seldom sits on the bench and swears a lot. His name is Robert Francis, a fast-talking 52-year-old Republican, a rock fan and a keen hunter who proudly showed me, in his office before proceedings started, the heads of huge hogs he has shot.
As the offenders troop in, he warns if anyone lies or bullshits he will go “fucking ballistic.”
Then he discusses the difficulties of staying straight as he dissects their jobs, their families, their desires for the future. He responds to their comments with bawdy jokes, short homilies or sharp threats.
“Stay positive, brother,” one man is told, while another is warned: “You might think I’m crazy but I’m the crazy bastard who can put you back in jail.”
There are outbursts of applause, then cheers for a young man who looks embarrassed as he reveals he got married two days earlier. The judge tells a woman who has started helping her mother around the home that she makes him proud.
“You gotta be proud, too,” he says.
Until recently, these people would have been discarded in overcrowded prisons. After all they were caught in Texas — the toughest state of a nation that locks up more offenders than any other in the world, with more than one in every 100 adults behind bars. Instead they receive counseling and assistance with housing and employment, although they can be sent back to jail if they fail drug tests, abscond or reoffend.
One woman, a crystal meth addict, tells me the sessions in court are like walking on eggshells. But there are small incentives for those doing well, such as US$10 gift vouchers or — on the day I visited — barbecue lunch out with Francis.
“These people have to believe we care and want them to succeed,” he tells me later. “Once they believe in me they can start to change.”
They are beneficiaries of a revolution in justice sweeping the US, one with illuminating lessons. It is a revolt led by hardline conservatives who have declared prison a sign of state failure.
They say it is an inefficient use of taxpayers’ money when the same people, often damaged by drink, drugs, mental health problems or chaotic backgrounds, return there again and again.
Remarkably, this revolution was unleashed in “hang ’em high” Texas, which prides itself on its toughness and still holds more executions than other states. But instead of building more prisons and jailing ever more people, Texas is now diverting funds to sophisticated rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism. Money has been poured into probation, parole and specialist services for addicts, the mentally ill, women and veterans. And it has worked: figures show even violent crime dropping at more than twice the national average, while cutting costs and reducing prison populations.