Being in the business, we have seen the best and worse that the legal system has to offer. But there are always flickers of hope in those wishing to change things for the better. Judge George Ashford, a lawyer appointed as a judge to the Division Male Court (DMC), is one such person. Every Monday night he attends the Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center in Dallas to hold a “specialty court” for minority boys who have tangled with the law. Some are there for aggravated assault, others for robbery, but Ashford doesn’t judge them for their crimes. His goal is to help teach them to be responsible citizens.
For those entering into Ashford’s court, the DMC is their last chance at avoiding a juvenile record. And so far it’s been a success. Of the 143 boys who have been through DMC, only 4 have re-offended while in the program. Instead of telling the boys to stay out of trouble, Ashford and his team of probation officers, therapists, and truancy officers spend 6 months talking and teaching these boys. What do they cover in the court? Life lessons. The importance of being a gentleman. Accountability and responsibility. They are teaching them to be men and how to rein control of their lives. And it all starts from day one. Every boy who enters DMC is required to wear a collared shirt, tucked in, and pants with a belt.
One mother commented that the system is “an answer to a prayer.” In Dallas County it is estimated that over 60% of those in the juvenile court system are a minority, with whites making up 25%. As the system continues to improve over the years there is still a need to assist those who are unable to afford access to help. As a whole, the nation has an issue with youth minorities being overrepresented in the system. And it’s not because certain races commit more crimes. Many experts believe that it’s an issue of available sources for rehabilitation. Lack of helpful resources are causing juveniles to be sucked into the system. That’s where Ashford comes in.
Instead of sitting at a judge’s bench with a black robe, Ashford moves to the desks and talks to the boys face to face in a suit and tie. He asks them about their hobbies and takes a genuine interest in their lives. When one boy is being bullied in school, Ashford assures him that keeping to his grades and sticking with it is the way to go: “You take care of business — when you’re my age, they’ll be working for you. So, don’t let them worry you at all.”
Part of the trouble with the program is the high demand of participation needed for both the staff and the families. When Dr. Terry Smith, the Juvenile Executive Director, first developed the program in 2013, several people turned down the offer, believing that it couldn’t work without the boys being sentenced to detention or probation. Probation officers meet with the boys weekly. They have to check to make sure all of them are abiding by the 7pm curfew, daily. They administer random drug tests, check on their school grades, and even call their homes in the morning to ensure the boys get up for class. The boys are also expected to keep a daily journal to help exhibit the character traits they have learned in the weekly court session.
Holding accountability with these demands is quite a challenge for the officers and the parents. And they don’t toss out boys who make a mistake. Officers are trained to stick with the boys and help them however they can. They want to see these boys succeed just as must as their parents. For those who complete the six month program, the charges disappear as if it never happened. Those who do not finish or fail assignments face going back to regular juvenile court.
Ashford admits that he’s a bit sterner in his conversations with the older boys edging closer to 18 years of age because they are close to becoming legal adults. His approach to them is to show how important it is to be a responsible man.
“Real life is coming and it’s coming fast and you don’t realize it,” he says.
What makes DMC’s program stand out is its commitment to building character and tailoring content to each individual. A 17-year old boy in the program recently found out that he was going to be a father. So DMC is adding parenting classes to his work-load.
Right now funding is handled through the court’s budget and there’s not enough to hire more staff members. No one knows if the changes seen in the boys will last; it’s a major concern for them. The program has to look to outside volunteers for mentoring and there is not enough money to continue with after-care. But Ashford has hope that the program will continue and turn out responsible men. Seeing the changes of the past 2 years have made a difference.
Image Source: http://www.ncjfcj.org/our-work/juvenile-justice