Tue, Oct 02, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Texan judge launches revolution in justice

Tough-on-crime Republican Robert Francis is an unlikely champion of a movement to close US jails

By Ian Birrell  /  The Observer

Given his record, Barajas was looking at a long stretch in prison when he was arrested. Instead he is working as a roofer, trying to be a good dad and nursing ambitions to open his own tire shop.

“I always thought I was on my own and never understood all my anger,” he says. “I’m not saying I don’t have bad days and bad experiences, because of course I do, but I am confident I am going to make it.”

There are only two ways to cut prison populations: slow down the flow of people entering the system or speed up the numbers being released. Texas did both. Figures reveal that crime rates fell 8.3 percent last year, far outpacing national falls, with murder and robbery rates down about 15 percent. Property crime fell 10 times faster than in the rest of the country. Meanwhile, despite the soaring state population, prisoner numbers dropped by 2,500 last year.

Probation services used to rely on little more than gut feelings to determine if inmates might get into trouble again. Now they use sophisticated risk-analysis tools that have cut the number of low-risk offenders who reoffend within a year from 26 percent to under 1 percent.

“We kept asking politicians to listen to us,” says Geraldine Nagy, head of probation in Travis County. “But I thought the idea that prison was the only option was so ingrained in the minds of so many people we would never get this shift.”

At the root of the reforms is an idea alien to many on the right: to understand more and condemn less.

“The people we are dealing with are not like you and me,” Francis told me. “I found this a shock. I grew up in a house with married parents, both of whom had college degrees. I thought this was normal, but now I know it isn’t.”

The vast majority of people parading through his court come from broken homes, failed to graduate from school, began using drugs in their teens and had children before they were 20.

“These people are preconceived to have a harder path through life than the likes of us,” he said. “I don’t even say we offer rehabilitation. We are trying to provide 18 years of parenting in one year of drug court.”

Francis’ 15-strong team deals every year with about 320 offenders, who typically spend six months in special treatment units in prison, then a year attending court several times a week with regular drug testing, followed by a decade on probation.

Recent graduates include Lavoris Neal, a smartly dressed 33-year-old who grins as he tells me his check shirt, chinos and shiny black shoes cost US$12 from a thrift store.

He never knew his father, had an illiterate mother, was drinking by the age of eight, delivering drugs by 12 and using them the next year.

“I thought this was normal,” he says. “No one told me I was raised wrong, and when they did I was in tears. But I was a kid and did what I was told.”

Soon he was armed and dangerous and using PCP — a hallucinogen that leads to paranoia. He stole, shot at people, went on the run from police for months. When I ask what was the worst thing he did, he smiles.

“I’ve not been caught for some things,” he says.

Then he pulls out some documents from a folder.

“Look at this,” he says. “I’ve never had insurance for a car before.”

Now this energetic character works as a business consultant, has twins on the way with a new partner and spends his leisure time devouring political biographies at the local library.

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