Judge Troy Braswell: Taking the Time to Hear

Judge Troy Braswell: Taking the Time to Hear

The poised teenage girl was hardly recognizable, standing before the judge. She looked reformed, confident in herself.

Circuit Judge Troy Braswell was struck by her composure. “Until that point she had really been struggling, with little to no parenting. She bounced back and forth between her parents’ homes and had access to drugs and alcohol. She had not been doing well in school.”

The girl was fresh from a rigorous 22-week residential program through the Arkansas National Guard, where her days had been awash in structure. With a focus on personal responsibility and life skills, she earned certificates for mastering fundamentals like waking up on time, making her bed, exercising.

“All the things that are so important. I was proud of her maturity, the hard work that she put in at the Arkansas Youth Challenge,” he remembers.

But back home with lax parenting and haphazard routines, she soon began reverting to former ways.

“I firmly believe that parents should have the resources to parent how they believe. But we’ve got to make sure they are parenting,” says the eight-year juvenile judge for Faulkner, Van Buren and Searcy counties. “Immediate consequences and sanctions, and recognition of doing well ... those are lacking in so many of our homes.”

“FAMILIES ARE ASKED ABOUT THEIR HOME LIFE AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND, HAVE THEY WITNESSED VIOLENCE IN THE HOME, WHAT IS THE CRIMINAL HISTORY OF THE FAMILY?”
JUDGE TROY BRASWELL

By closely examining how home environments and histories affect the youth in his court, and customizing his responses, Judge Braswell has seen exceptional success – 53% fewer delinquency cases have been filed in Faulkner County, and the recidivism rate has dropped by at least 33%.

“Every case is different,” Braswell says. “We really miss the boat when we have predetermined outcomes, because kids are all different and come from different homes and different backgrounds and experiences.

“What’s critical is that kids recognize their behavior as being wrong, are given an opportunity to make the situation right, and are enabled to deal with it the next time that it arises.”

Braswell’s court volunteered to use a pilot risk assessment program. Juvenile probation officers conduct extensive interviews with families so that when a juvenile is charged with a crime, the court gleans as much information as possible before making a disposition or sentencing decision. The process takes two to three hours.

“When a kid completes probation, we want to lower that risk factor of him or her being a violent offender or coming back to court,” Braswell said.

“Families are asked about their home life and social background, have they witnessed violence in the home, what is the criminal history of the family? We take mental health and substance abuse assessments. A report is generated listing areas of need and risk for each kid.

“Forget about why they’re in court. You don’t even talk about that. What do you have going on in your life that’s good? What are areas that we need to work on? Then we come up with what I call an individualized court plan.”

Braswell and his staff have curated a robust curriculum, introducing youth to new concepts and perspectives and rewarding their progress. Youth may show resistance to participating (eye rolling, huffing), but results are enthusiastic.

There is a book club, a Girl Scout program, a class about the justice system and how to interact with law enforcement and courts, and a civil rights class focusing on historical figures who fought for opportunities that youth enjoy today.

“The courthouse isn’t a great place for kids to be, so we get our programs out of this building, partnering with Deliver Hope, the University of Central Arkansas, and local businesses,” Braswell says.

“We have interns and folks from UCA who are interested in juvenile justice and want to see positive change. And that’s where the magic happens. I can’t run a theater class, but there are a lot of smart people over at UCA who love theater.

“I had kids in court that didn’t get a chance to play football because they made some bad decisions. But we saw them on a path to something good. So I reached out to Coach Nathan Brown and said, ‘I’ve got some kids who messed up but are doing better; they want to play football but can’t – could they spend some time with your players?’

“So they watch practices, meet with college athletes they admire, and if they continue to do well at the end of the year, they get to go down on the sidelines and watch a game with their family.

“Coach Nathan Brown said, ‘Troy, I’m excited about it because I have young men who have come through really tough circumstances, and I’ve got others who have come through really good circumstances that appreciate what they had and are eager to give that back.’”

On the judge’s wish list are: inpatient drug treatment for Arkansas kids; an increase in trade schools similar to Job Corps; and shelters to serve kids with mental health issues, to avoid sending them to jail.

“We spend a lot of time as a state rightfully addressing the adult system, right? If you want to make a huge difference in prison overcrowding, the investment should be in juvenile courts. That’s our next generation, that’s our future.

“But even if you give a kid the best services in the world, what’s going on at home,” he asks. “I get asked all the time, what’s the number one thing that makes the biggest difference for a kid in your court? And I would say it’s a parent who decides, ‘I’ve got to parent. I can’t keep doing things the same way that we’ve been doing them. I have accountability and responsibility.’

“Once that happens, get me out of the way. You don’t need me or a court.”

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

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