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The Dallas Examiner

“That’s why I’m such a believer,” said District Attorney Susan Hawk as she described the Reformative Justice Unit programs her office developed in 2015 as a remedy to reduce nonviolent crime and re-arrests in the county – especially for those who suffer from mental illness.

“I watched it every day. I’ve seen it.”

Hawk underscored that RJU programs Stabilize Engagement and Treatment, Achieve Inspire Motivate, and Citizens Against Recidivism have their roots in her work in the 291st District Court.

“I was a judge for 11 years … and I created one of the first specialty courts, the very first in the state of Texas, that dealt with aggravated offenders,” she offered. “It was called the ATLAS (Achieving True Liberty and Success) Mental Health Court.”

ATLAS was designed to mitigate the mass incarcerations that Hawk said were not reducing crime or recidivism.

“Sending people to jail or prison for a minimum amount of time because we didn’t have any resources or programs out there available only made them worse when they got out to reoffend,” she voiced. AIM and SET were developed to provide improvement in two distinct areas.

“The SET program is for mentally ill offenders and, as you imagine, it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart because of mental illness,” Hawk admitted.

During an October 2015 interview with The Dallas Examiner, Hawk spoke about her own struggle with a major depressive disorder and her outlook on those within the legal system who face similar obstacles.

“I think there is a hole in the system; that folks aren’t going to be able to get the help I did,” the D.A. commented at that time. “And that’s kind of where I want to focus all my attention on. What can I do to bring light to that situation to get the help to people that need help but can’t afford it?”

The SET initiative will expand upon the ATLAS concept to provide greater mental health and social support options by pairing individuals in need with the assistance from county programs already in place and other entities, such as housing assistance.

“We’re learning how to identify these offenders once they get to the jail,” Hawk described the process. “We look at their offense, and we look at their criteria, we look at their background, we get an assessment done on them, and then we find out if they’re eligible for our pre-adjudication program.”

Hawk confirmed that SET is separate from a specialty court and provides those who have been assessed with a case worker and a probation officer.

“Even though they are not on probation, we have contracted with the probation department for services. We pay them a fee to monitor our folks and let them have the services that are available through probation even though they have not been adjudicated.”

Alternatively, AIM is specifically for young offenders between the ages of 18 and 24.

“We are trying to identify them once they get to jail and our desire is to get them in a program where a job or education is the center focus of the program,” she said.

“Now there’s going to be substance abuse issues and those types of things that we’re going to give them services and give them the help but they will not be able to graduate until they have a skill set.

“I think what we do is we provide all these services for them through probation, and we enable a lot of folks and we give them everything they need and they graduate, and then we just leave, they’re just gone. And they don’t know what to do.”

The D.A. reflected upon the current model of young offender programs.

“It’s kind of setting them up for failure because then they have no support system when they get out.”

To Hawk, the skill set for success and the guidance to stay on such a path were needed additions to the bigger picture of reducing crime.

The RJU’s third component, CARe, involves the Citizen Prosecutor Academy – a weekly opportunity for county residents to gain a better understanding of the criminal investigation and prosecution process, according to the D.A.’s website – and the DAs In School initiative.

Centered on Kimball High School and its elementary and junior high “feeder schools,” DAs In School began in October and is intended to familiarize students with the purpose and occupations of the criminal justice system.

“We come in as the district attorney’s office and we just start dialog with them about law enforcement, and what they can do if they are victims, or if they see something that’s happening, instead of getting involved in a life of crime,” she said. “All these different options that they can do to see that the police aren’t bad. Law enforcement’s good. We want to help you; we don’t want to hurt you.”

Mentorship of the students by district attorneys is another aspect of CARe.

“We’re starting with just a small group of folks, small number of schools, and we’re just going to measure our success,” Hawk affirmed.

The D.A. pointed out that the initiatives already have supporting data suggesting that the programs will be successful. The University of North Texas published a 2012 study, Final-Stage Diversion: A Safety Net for Offenders with Mental Disorders which included a look at ATLAS. “They had a control group and they followed 36 of my graduates for two years,” Hawk stated. The control group were not served by ATLAS but received usual mental health services through their probation.

“We showed that individuals that graduated in our program had a 70 percent reduction in new arrests; 67 percent reduction in recidivism.” Hawk also pledged that ATLAS provided a break for taxpayers. “In five years we saved taxpayers over $13.5 million in incarceration costs.”

SET and AIM programs last for 12 to 18 months. Upon completion, the cases of the individuals enrolled in the programs are dismissed.

“… And we pay – the district attorney’s office – pays for their expunction,” Hawk affirmed, speaking about the civil court process in which first-time offenders attempt to have their criminal records sealed. “They’re not going to have to get a lawyer, pay $800 to get an expunction; we’re doing that with our money.”

The RJU could mean positive changes for local residents caught in a system with a prison population of 35 percent African Americans statewide, according to the report Texas Criminal Justice Coalition: Safer, Smarter, and More Cost-Efficient Approaches to Reducing Crime in Texas.

Hawk acknowledged that the RJU has had some “pushback” and staffing for some aspects of the programs is ongoing. However, in order for the RJU to be successful she maintained that the right people need to be in place from the beginning.

Back in 2015 Hawk expressed, “My message is, I want folks who are sitting out there and feel like they have no hope, that there’s no one that cares, and there’s no one that will help them, that there is hope.”

As the D.A. began her first full year with the RJU in place her message carried a similar tone, applying past lessons to the new programs.

“I just had a first-hand, front-row experience of how we need to do things differently and just looking at the criminal justice system as a whole,” she said. “Not just specialty programs or diversion programs, but looking at how we are treating individuals that we’re incarcerating. What kind of individuals are we making them as a result of them being incarcerated?”

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