It's not often that something happens at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center that makes me smile. It's even less common to see something, in this capital city of the heartless Texas justice machine, that inspires hopes for a better system in the future. But that happened today, and it's quietly one of the best criminal justice initiatives in a country that so desperately needs them.
What am I talking about? The Harris County STAR Court - a trial diversion program designed to give felony drug defendants an opportunity to avoid the gripping depths of our barbaric prison system.
Judge Bill Burke presides over the court, and his role is an important one. Where many judges project an image designed to intimidate defendants, Burke's role is that of stern mentor. In many ways, he is like a father figure to the addicts who pass through the court. On this day, he entered the court not through traditional chambers, but rather through a side entrance. He didn't wear a robe or even a tie. He dressed in business casual, and he greeted the people in court with a hearty, "How are we doing today?"
He keeps close track of each defendant's sobriety date, and when that defendant crosses a monthly or yearly threshold, the judge hands out a commemorative coin. For two exemplary defendants, the day brought the presentation of the Shining Star Award - a signed certificate designed to acknowledge great progress or an excellent month. The defendants are required to check in with the court many times per month, and each time, they describe to the judge their rehab activities. Some are attending NA meetings. Others are in more intensive programs. When these individuals are finished describing their progress, the judge will congratulate them on a job well done. In one instance, he told a female defendant that he was proud of her. At the conclusion of these mini-hearings, the entire crowd applauds each defendant. The judge, district attorneys, defense attorneys, court clerks, and anyone else in attendance give small ovations for a job well done. And those claps aren't forced either. When you hear a woman tell of how she's sober for the first time since the age of 12, it's difficult to maintain your emotions.
The program provides structure in addition to encouragement. For six months, these defendants go through intensive in-patient rehabilitation. They go through the physical, mental, and emotional toil of shaking a drug addiction. Once completed, defendants attend some out-patient program. The longer they adhere to the standards of the court, they higher they climb through its many phases. They're required to attend meetings, maintain a sponsor, and pass regular urine tests. They are required to either attend school, hold a job, or attend a career rebuilding course.
When they enter the STAR court room each week, they're greeted not by the typical pictures of 100-year old Texas judges. Instead, the room is decorated like a child's birthday party. It has stars on the walls and a giant star pinata. Also on the walls are the names of those former addicts who have successfully completed the program.
But STAR court doesn't take everyone. Just down the hall and on floors north and south, courts are filled with people who weren't lucky enough to get into these programs. Those people are also charged with felonies for possessing a relatively small amount of drugs. But for one reason or another - usually the lack of a skilled and dedicated lawyer advocating on their behalf - they're left to deal with the real drug adjudication system. While their cohorts are put through much-needed rehabilitation, these other offenders are locked up for years, feeding the prison machine with non-violent inmates who get no help for their addictions.
On Wednesday in STAR court, one woman proudly proclaimed to the court that she had been sober for one year. She was pregnant, and she had just learned that it was a boy. She was going to her meetings, and she had just landed a job. The district attorney - a position typically defined by brutalism toward drug offenders - proudly explained to the court that this woman had passed all of her drug tests while learning to be more expressive in her counseling sessions. As the woman told her story, she both laughed and cried. And it wasn't hard to cry right along with her.
Unfortunately, the tears will flow on the other end of the hall in drug cases, too. They'll just be flowing for another reason, as the more effective system carries on as a temporary program while brutal incarceration serves as our default.