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A 17-year-old boy stands about three feet away from Associate Judge William “Cruz” Shaw, who’s seated at a raised bench.
“I can change,” the boy told the judge. He’s still struggling to make curfew and attend drug counseling sessions. He’s not enrolled in school, and he claims his drug test came back positive because he was drugged at a party.
“You’re 17,” Shaw noted. “When you’re 18 [and you get arrested] you’re going downtown [to jail]. Is that what you want?”
“No, sir,” the boy said.
The proceeding is a probation hearing for a group of about a dozen teenage boys and girls, but more intimate than typical sessions of its type. This is the pre-adjudication drug court for Bexar County’s 436th Juvenile District Court, an enhanced deferred judgment program that gives first-time drug offenders – young men and women – a chance to clear their records and move on with a clean slate.
While the kids typically give one-word answers, their parents, grandparents, or legal guardians stand with them and give the judge additional context about the child’s living conditions and family situation. But an assistant district attorney is also present to give recommendations.
“I don’t see he’s amenable to change,” the attorney said.
The boy’s mother said she’s starting to see the program “get through to him.”
“I want you in school by Friday,” Shaw said, recommending the boy remain in the program – but this is his last shot. “I need you off the street.”
“It’s not about getting in trouble … it’s about giving you resources,” Shaw said, maintaining direct eye contact. The boy returned to sit with the rest of the kids, all on probation for low-level drug offenses.
Meeting the requirements of the program is not easy. The program’s probation officers are given a lighter caseload so they can give more attention to the kids assigned to them. Legal guardians are required to participate, and the program’s three, 30-day phases come with increasingly strict rules for obeying curfews, attending counseling, and achieving clean drug tests. Graduates must have several clean drug tests in a row and be home during designated evening hours, which are flexible to account for school and work schedules.
When kids get promoted to the program’s next phase, their peers applaud in the courtroom, and they receive gift cards to various businesses.
The $25 cards serve as a small incentive, but the real incentive is being able to apply to jobs, schools, and other opportunities without having to mention a potentially disqualifying criminal record, Shaw said.
“It’s not about judgment,” he said. “It’s about rehabilitation.”
Not every teen makes it through each phase, Shaw said. Sometimes they backslide, and he has no choice but to kick them out of the program. That typically means they go back into the judicial system with a guilty plea on their record. Shaw can order them to be sent to juvenile detention – and it’s up to him whether they can return to the pre-adjudication program.
“Some kids need a big reality check several times. Some need it once,” said Shaw, who oversees the pre-adjudication drug court’s caseload. “Some you can just tell they’re on a [bad] path. … There’s no secret formula.”
And to get into the program, the youth and their guardians have to show that they really want it, he said. That contributes to the program’s ability to help reduce the chances that they’ll get in trouble with the law again.
About 630 kids are referred to the county’s juvenile courts every year for drug-related offenses. Each year, an average of 77 kids go through the three pre-adjudication drug courts. Nearly 75 percent did not return with a new offense within six months, according to the Bexar County Juvenile Probation office.
If a teen is going to re-offend, Shaw said, they’ll typically do it within three months.
But whatever the statistics, he added, “if we can get one or two kids and get them on the right track, it’s worth it.”
While on the bench during monthly check-ins, Shaw talks more casually than you would expect from a judge. He starts the hearing with a smile directed toward
s the group of kids sitting near the bench. “Y’all ready?”
“If I didn’t have to wear a robe, I wouldn’t,” he said, pulling his robe over tattooed arms and jeans before August’s hearing. “I try to let the families know that I’m still just a human being.”
For many young men and women of color, he’s the first successful black man in a position of power they’ve met, he said. Shaw, an attorney elected to the District 2 City Council seat in 2016, stepped down in December 2018 to take the associate judge position. His work as an attorney and in the community has always focused on bettering the quality of life for children, he said.
While he was proud to represent District 2, he said the opportunity to help these kids rise out of the criminal justice system was “too perfect” to pass up.
At first, the kids are shy, he said. “Over the months you start to crack open that shell. … I try to use the connections I got through the City to help open doors and expose these kids to something different outside their neighborhoods.”
For example, Shaw set up a tour of the San Antonio Fire Department’s training center, where the kids learned what’s involved in becoming a firefighter.
A critical component of the program is that the child’s parent or guardian is engaged, he said. They often receive counseling support, too.
The drug court is one of several specialty courts that Judge Lisa Jarret presides over in the 436th District Court. They deal with certain crimes and communities including those tailored for girls, boys, victims of sex trafficking, and victims of family violence.
“It’s an opportunity to once again divert kids from the [criminal justice] system, which is what we want,” said Jarret, who was appointed to the court in 2009. Once they graduate from the program, they have no additional parole oversight and no criminal record.
As a judge, Shaw is a “breath of fresh air” for many families, she said.
“He talks their language,” she said, noting his extensive work with youth as a defense attorney. “He knows these kids, so he works well with them.”
Thomas, now 17, moved in with his grandmother on the West Side several years ago when his mother entered rehabilitation. At 16, he was arrested on a marijuana charge. After pleading guilty, Thomas was placed in the deferred prosecution program, but he continued to test positive for marijuana. (The Rivard Report agreed to use a pseudonym to protect his identity as his criminal record is now cleared and he hopes to start fresh.)
At first, Thomas said, he didn’t want to enter the program. Eventually, he realized he wanted to buckle down and get rid of the drug charge.
“To be honest, it was just getting annoying,” he said of having to jump through the hoops of probation. “I just wanted to move on.”
Thomas entered the pre-adjudication program about seven months ago. He didn’t succeed immediately and had to repeat phase one after failing a drug test. The increased supervision, more frequent drug tests, and monthly hearings in front of Shaw helped him stop using. He has tested clean for the last four months.
The program includes field trips and activities for the youth to keep them distracted from the patterns that led to drug use, Shaw said. Some activities are as simple as a game of basketball, some are more structured such as the Children and Horses Always Produce Success (CHAPS) program. Thomas especially enjoyed CHAPS, which uses equine therapy to reach kids.
Before the program, Thomas had never touched a horse. While he didn’t get to ride one, one day he hopes to. “It just seems peaceful,” he said.
Such outings helped keep him busy over the summer. He now has a job at a fast-food restaurant, a girlfriend, and is working on finishing high school, he said. That leaves little time to get in trouble again.
“Now I’m always working,” he said. He’s “50-50” on whether he’ll go to college, but with a clean criminal record, that will be much easier.
His grandmother said it helped Thomas to have the monthly hearings in front of the judge and his peers.
“You see the other kids – it’s not just you,” she said. “You see how they follow up and do well [in the program] or don’t … and what happens when you do.”