Unique Dallas County juvenile court teaches minority boys to be men
For the boys in the Diversion Male Court, Judge George Ashford is their last chance to avoid a juvenile record
By Jennifer Emily and Diane Jennings
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — Judge George Ashford walks into his one-of-a-kind Dallas County specialty court for minority boys in trouble each Monday night to teach, preach and live by example.
Ashford, a lanky black lawyer appointed judge of the Diversion Male Court, wears a suit and tie instead of a robe as he talks to black and Hispanic boys accused of everything from aggravated assault to burglary.
For the boys in DMC, Ashford is their last chance to avoid a juvenile record. DMC, staffed by men of color, was created in response to the national problem of overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile justice system. There is no similar program in Texas, and there are only a handful like it in the country.
More than simply telling the boys to stay out of trouble, Ashford and a team of probation officers, truancy officers and therapists spend six months imparting life lessons about accountability, respect, responsibility and empathy. The instruction provides the boys a glimpse of the world beyond their neighborhoods.
“These men are teaching them how to be men,” said Dr. Terry Smith, executive director of the Dallas County Juvenile Department, who started the program.
Whether they boys are chubby-cheeked 10-year-olds barely topping 4 feet or gangly 16-year-olds sporting wispy chin hair, the court requires them to wear pants firmly belted around their hips and shirts that are collared and carefully tucked-in.
Ashford makes the boys sit directly in front of him. “In case I have to give you the ‘mean’ look,” he jokes. Sort of.
Woe to the boy who fails to pull out a chair for the mother accompanying him to court.
“No, no, no,” probation officer Herman Guerra admonishes when a boy sits down without offering this courtesy. Guerra demonstrates: “Stand behind it; with both hands, pull it out.”
Of 143 boys who have been through DMC or are currently enrolled, only four re-offended while in the program.
University of Texas at Dallas criminologist Alex R. Piquero, a nationally recognized juvenile justice expert, said the minority boys court is as “viable and as good of an idea as anything else. ... We should continue to experiment with new approaches and alternatives to sentencing, treatment and rehabilitation.”
Piquero said programs like DMC need to be evaluated “rigorously” over a long period to ensure that the outcomes are as good as or better than those in regular court.
For at least one mother waiting outside the courtroom, DMC is “an answer to prayer.”
Though The Dallas Morning News gained wide access to the juvenile justice system, the newspaper does not typically name juveniles accused of crimes or their parents because juvenile court records are not public.
The woman’s son is relatively new to the program. “Him getting into trouble was real hard for me. I need him to learn to follow the rules,” said the woman, who is a volunteer minister. “I wish they had it when my nephew got in trouble. There wasn’t anyone to show they cared.”
Like many subjects that touch on race and crime, “disproportionate minority contact” among both adults and kids in the justice system is an “uncomfortable topic,” said Smith, the head of the Juvenile Department. “Does that mean we ignore it?”
Blacks make up about 22 percent of Dallas County’s juvenile population but about 44 percent of those in the county’s juvenile justice system, according to the Juvenile Department. Hispanics are slightly underrepresented. Whites make up 25 percent of the county’s juvenile population and only about 11 percent of the department population.
Many experts say it’s not necessarily because minority kids commit more crimes. But minority boys are more likely to be sucked into the system because they lack the resources many whites have.
“There has been some implicit biases and decisions made at arrest, at incarceration, at adjudication, at all levels that … results in these young people being in the situation they are in,” said Darlene Byrne, a state district judge in Travis County who is president-elect of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Experts point to Ethan Couch, a white teenager who killed four people in Tarrant County two years ago while driving drunk. Couch was 16 at the time of the crash, and it was his third alcohol-related run-in with the law, yet a judge sentenced him to treatment paid for by his parents.
The chances of a black kid receiving that same sentence are practically nil, the experts say.
Piquero said it’s hard to know why minorities are overrepresented compared with whites. Many decisions aren’t documented and are not quantifiable because they involve discretion — like police officers’ interactions with juveniles. It’s possible, he said, that minorities are committing worse or more crimes in some instances. Or perhaps not.
“It’s real simple to look at who is in the facilities and say, ‘Oh, well the system is totally biased,’” Piquero said. “That may be true at some level or to some extent. We just don’t know how much.”
To appear less adversarial, Ashford doesn’t sit on the bench as he searches for a way to connect with each boy.
With one boy, Ashford discusses boxing; with another, auto repair. But the judge always brings the conversation back to a life lesson.
When a small 12-year-old with glasses and a wispy voice sits down, Ashford asks what he did on the recent snow day.
He mumbles a short answer.
“How are you doing now in science?”
The boy’s grades are OK. But James Hill, a probation officer, tells the judge he had a conference at the boy’s school about other kids bullying the youngster.
Ashford tells the boy that because he’s done everything he’s been asked, he’ll be promoted to the next stage of the program, where he will learn new character traits, perform community service and come to court every other week.
Then he offers a fatherly talk that encourages the child to use his brain. The boy has an aggravated assault charge because he threatened another child and showed him a knife.
Ashford tells kids that fighting at school no longer ends with a trip to the principal’s office. It often means a criminal charge and a juvenile record.
“These guys pick on you in school because you’re smart,” Ashford said. “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.”
When Smith, the Juvenile Department executive director, decided to create DMC, she approached veteran juvenile officer Mario Love.
“I actually laughed,” Love said.
He said he could not imagine a program that did not sentence boys to regular probation or detention. Probation officers Hill and Guerra, and even Ashford, were skeptical as well.
“I’m happy to say I was proven wrong,” says Love, a Mack Truck of a man who is now a passionate advocate for the program.
Since the court began, 258 boys have been referred to the program by the district attorney’s office. Officials have accepted 143 of them, and 25 are being assessed by the Juvenile Department.
The program is demanding, and not all families want to participate.
Probation officers meet with the boys weekly. For each of them, the same officer checks to see if he is abiding by the 7 p.m. curfew and how he’s doing at school. The officer also administers random drug tests. Drug treatment is available. A truant officer may call a boy in the program each morning to wake him up and may text him during the day to check on his whereabouts. Boys must keep up with their school work and are tutored if necessary.
The curfew is difficult for some to abide by. But one 17-year-old accused of burglary said that without it “I would not be coming at the proper time. I’d be hanging out with friends.” Spending time with the wrong kids helped get him in trouble.
His father said having the judge and probation officers hold his son accountable “lets me know I’m not the only one saying it.”
All participants are required to learn “character traits” such as trustworthiness and respect and to write a half page daily in a journal, documenting how those traits affect their behavior.
The journals not only afford the court a glimpse into the child’s life and thoughts but also show their writing levels.
Some boys said they dislike the journal requirement most of all.
Don’t give up
A mistake doesn’t mean boys are automatically banished from the program. One failed several drug tests, and another was caught with a stolen cellphone. They were given additional services and assignments.
“We’re kind of trained to not give up until we see that ‘Son, you’re a danger,’” Hill said. “We’re going to keep pouring in resources.”
Piquero, the criminologist, said success isn’t found only in total compliance. If behavior improves or the boys commit fewer or lesser crimes, that is progress. He compared it to the dieter who buys a small order of fries instead of a large.
“I don’t think we want to live in a world of all or nothing, because we’re going to set ourselves up for failure,” Piquero said.
When DMC launched in 2013, prosecutors referred only low-level, first-time offenders. That’s changed now.
“You kind of have to have a few dates and go out to dinner a few times,” said Robert Davis, a probation officer who serves as the liaison to the district attorney’s office.
If a boy completes the program, the charge against him disappears, as if the incident never occurred. Those who fail face charges in regular juvenile court.
Around the courthouse, Davis said, “the adage goes: ‘Everybody knows that Mario and George don’t play.’”
Being a man
With older boys, Ashford, a father of three, takes a sterner approach.
When a 16-year-old sits down, the judge turns to the probation officer. “Mr. Hill, it looks like, going from the history, [he] gets a little more reliable and consistent,” Ashford muses.
“He’s a good worker when he wants to,” says Hill, sounding unimpressed. “I don’t think he’s bought into the idea that he can’t always play catch-up.”
“How are your grades?” Ashford asks.
“Passing,” the boy replies.
“What are they?” Ashford pushes.
Ashford lets his annoyance show. “This man just told me how intelligent you are,” he says. “When you say ‘passing,’ that makes me think you’re hanging around with underachievers, because that’s what they say.”
Ashford bears down on the boy, whose mistake was evading officers after a traffic stop.
“In a little over a year, you are going to be 18 — an adult, except for drinking,” he says. “Mom could lock you out. You might have to fend for yourself. Dude, that should make you scared.”
“If you’re a man,” the judge says, “you’ve got to take care of yourself.”
Ashford gives the boy what he calls “The Assignment”: to learn what his mother pays for rent, water, telephone, electricity, the car loan and gas.
“Real life is coming and it’s coming fast and you don’t realize it,” he says.
Will it last?
DMC focuses on building character.
Love, the juvenile officer, tries to tailor the program to individual needs. When he learned that one 17-year-old had recently become a father, he planned to add parenting classes to the barber classes the boy was already taking.
“We know you’re here because of an offense, but we need to look at what’s lacking around you and what services can we put into play to make you a better person,” Love said.
Some kids are good boys who made stupid decisions, Ashford said. They appreciate the opportunity DMC gives them.
“Then there’s the kid, he’s been doing drugs or has been hanging out with the wrong kids for a long time. He hasn’t been motivated for a long time. He’s not doing well in school, you name it.
“Then he gets some positive influences. He gets the probation officer who really shows him they are concerned about him, care about him. They get the right kind of feedback from the judge, that, you know, we’re really trying to help you. Maybe some of the services kick in, the counseling addresses some issues in the home that help both him and the parent.
“Those cases are deeply satisfying.”
The question, Ashford said, is “will it last?”
No one knows, but the program administrators say the lack of after-care is a major concern. Funding for the program comes from the existing budget and occasional grants, Smith said.
She can’t hire more staff, but she’s trying to recruit male mentors to work with the kids. Mentoring right now comes via phone calls to the boys.
But if these boys fail, Smith said, “it’s not going to be because we didn’t care.”