By Judge John Creuzot
During the course of my legal career as a practicing attorney and as a judge, I have come to understand that justice is both hard work, and heart work.
In other words, in order to create a truly just society we must work diligently at the pursuit of justice, and we must demonstrate concern for those whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system — particularly people of color and the poor — which is designed to protect us and maintain social order.
In 1998, when I led the effort to create DIVERT COURTS throughout the state of Texas, I understood that many defendants who were faced with substance abuse problems had emotional, spiritual and behavior difficulties that had to be addressed before they could become productive members of society.
The fundamental premise of DIVERT COURT was to create a system in which people whose lives were twisted by substance abuse problems were given an opportunity to participate in structured rehabilitation programs rather than simply becoming part of the pipeline to prison process.
Throughout the years, the lives of thousands have been restored by participating in DIVERT Court, a program that has been emulated throughout the State of Texas and across our nation. It has saved a significant amount of taxpayer dollars because once people’s lives were made whole they became contributing members of society, and we did not have to spend tax dollars to keep them in prison. In fact, the state was able to close a number of penal institutions.
Incarcerating people with substance abuse problems made no sense in 1998 and it makes no sense in 2018. A fair justice system makes a difference in the lives of people and often that occurs by getting involved in their lives and changing, when possible, the conditions that led to errant behavior.
As a prosecutor, I had to recommend people be sent to prison. As a jurist, I had to sentence people. It was never easy, finding a balance between protecting our society and finding ways to punish and rehabilitate individuals who found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
As a society, we have to enlarge the scope and the size of our dreams. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must see beyond what appears in front of us. We must see beyond the mountains if we are to replenish our society, and its people.
We must embrace concepts such as “certificates of rehabilitation.” Currently, our legal system does not erase most criminal convictions. Even an offense a middle-aged person committed while a teenager remains with him or her for the rest of their life. This makes little sense, and is not in the best interests of justice.
Innovation demands that we encourage our state legislators to pass legislation that would create ‘certificates of rehabilitation’ that would be recognized by landlords, business owners, members of the clergy and other decision-makers in our society.
We must recognize that a dated criminal record does not define who a person has become 20 or 30 years later. We can set standards to trigger a risk assessment, fairly predicting whether or not an individual will commit another crime.
Certainly, if our society can produce driverless cars we can create systems and procedures that will lead to reductions in criminal behavior, while giving our young people brighter futures, and our entire society a sense of hope. Yes, together we can do this!