A Building of Hope

The Crawford County Adult Education Center shares a building with the Crawford County District Court and several other rehabilitation resource agencies.
The Crawford County Adult Education Center shares a building with the Crawford County District Court and several other rehabilitation resource agencies.

Five hundred defendants each week file in front of Judge Charles "Chuck" Baker in Crawford County District Court.

They are facing penalties for traffic citations, DWIs, and other misdemeanor charges such as possession, theft of property, failure to appear, failure to pay, and driving without a license or insurance.

Judge Baker could expeditiously disperse these defendants using the two primary tools afforded him by Arkansas law: ordering jail time and assigning fines and fees.

Yet this tall, bearded former deputy sheriff and prosecutor from Louisiana adheres to a different philosophy. He wants to effect change, and he doesn’t want a person before him to return to court, especially for committing a new crime. So throughout his six years on the bench, he has taken the time to dig deeper with defendants and start conversations:

“Do you have the ability to pay a fine?”

“Are you employed?”

“Do you believe you have an addiction problem?”

“Why did you not come to court?”

Baker does not consider himself lenient, and he doesn’t hesitate to put someone in jail when necessary.

“But that’s not ever my first choice. That’s not what I want to do; you have to force me to put you in jail,” he says. “Rarely the reason a person is in court is the only issue in their life. Generally something else is going on, be it addiction, living in poverty, a family crisis, underemployment. It’s about more than fixing the problem that’s in front of them at the moment.”

When the law allows and the person is receptive, Baker suggests participation in job training or educational programs, and/or counseling for mental health or substance abuse issues. For successful completion, he may reduce the jail time and/or court costs to incentivize a defendant to develop better life habits and improve his or her financial situation.

“When I took the bench, we decided to try some innovative things to provide alternatives to help people financially, help their families and their employment situations, mental health issues, substance abuse issues. We try to be a onestop source for people to get help, no matter what their situation.”

This approach has saved an estimated $1.5 million in jail costs, and brought national recognition to the county’s adult education program which, in concert with other agencies, helps a defendant improve his or her education, job status and financial security.

“The end result is that the community is different as a result of the opportunities that we’re providing people,” he says. “I can’t look to jail as a first alternative. I can’t assess fines in every situation and expect that someone who’s unemployed or underemployed or someone who’s not able to buy groceries for their family is going to be able to pay a fine. It’s not about the court bringing in money. It’s about helping a person avoid this kind of problem in the future.”

I can’t assess fines in every situation and expect that someone who’s unemployed or underemployed or someone who’s not able to buy groceries for their family is going to be able to pay a fine.
Judge Charles "Chuck" Baker
 Judge Charles “Chuck” Baker, a former deputy sheriff and prosecutor from Louisiana, now presides in Crawford County District Court.
Judge Charles “Chuck” Baker, a former deputy sheriff and prosecutor from Louisiana, now presides in Crawford County District Court.

Suitable candidates meet with agencies that are represented in the courtroom during each of the 28 court sessions held monthly. These include representatives of Crawford County Adult Education, Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance, and 100 Families.

“This has probably added another 40 percent of time to my work week, a significant amount of time,” Baker says. “But if you look at the value; there’s no question in my mind that the return is well worth the additional time. My measure of success is not seeing that person back in court again.”

He also meets regularly with the county judge, members of the quorum court, chiefs of police, mayors and school superintendents.

“I never refuse a phone call from anybody who wants to talk to me about what we’re doing in court. We’ve got to tell people what our needs are and what they can do to make it better for people going through our court system.”

Initially it takes time to structure and implement such a program, and one of Baker’s challenges is that he needs more manpower, including an administrative support person. “But once you get all the hurdles out of the way, it’s going to make your life easier. Your court is going to be an easier process for people. There are just so many positives that make it worthwhile.”

Judge Baker doesn’t always get to see the end results of his efforts. Once he was in Walmart and a man stopped him to inquire whether he was Judge Baker.

“There had been a young woman in her early 20s who had a DWI, a third offense, and she had been through some rehab programs, and she continued to have a substance abuse problem,” Baker recalls. “She was a terribly tragic story; her mother had committed suicide when she was a young girl, she had an unstable family life, she hadn’t had any success in employment. And so I put her in touch with some people who I felt could help her.

“I was constantly checking up on her and talking to her about areas that I thought she could do better, and encouraging her to utilize the resources that we made available. A couple of years passed and I never knew how it worked out until an elderly gentleman approached me in the store.

“And he asked me, ‘Do you remember,’ and he named this lady’s name. ‘Well, she is my granddaughter. I wanted to tell you that you saved her life and how much it meant to our family that she was able to get her life back together.’ She had gone back to college, graduated, and had a full-time job making good wages. She got married and had a little girl, and so that makes it all worthwhile. You may only hear one success story a year, but when there are success stories like that, it makes it worthwhile.”

A KALEIDOSCOPE OF SERVICES

There’s another secret to success in Baker’s court, and it goes by the name of Dr. Debbie FaubusKendrick. Endlessly enthusiastic, Dr. FaubusKendrick worked in education for several decades as a principal, teacher, coach and counselor before joining Crawford County Adult Education in 2007 and becoming its director in 2015.

Dr. Faubus-Kendrick says she likes to run her own ship, and in adult ed she isn’t tied down to a lot of rules and can help people based on their needs, holistically.

She had known a prosecutor in southeast Arkansas who ran a program named Smarter Sentencing, and she liked the concept. She secured some special projects funds and invited all the area judges to a luncheon to share her ideas.

Baker, who was preparing to take the bench in January 2016, was immediately interested, and they set about developing an alternative sentencing program. The two entities have since moved into the same building, bringing new opportunities for collaboration.

Traditionally, adult ed centers provide GED testing, but they increasingly serve as a workforce center. About 100 people each year complete the GED program in Crawford County, but that’s where the offerings begin.

This year the center has served 1,100 students (not quite back to pre-pandemic levels). Some come from the community at large, but many are referred by the court.

Participants earn certificates for OSHA 10 programs by training to be a welder, medical assistant, CNA, phlebotomist, or work in personal care, and soon as a pharmacy tech, and to work with Amitrol (industrial maintenance).

Training programs are often developed to meet the needs of local employers such as Simmons Foods, Bekaert and Pepper Source.

Dr. Faubus-Kendrick believes in offering lots of choices to clients.

“Adults like choices. They may not have been successful before. I’ve worked with adults in their 30s and 40s who’ve never had a certificate in their lives. We deal with people who have had life experiences that have pushed them aside. We try to give them not only a piece of paper but a feeling of, ‘I can be successful. I can really do this.’ It’s like a flower blooming when you see these people; they come in and they are so downtrodden in their lives, and then they get that piece of paper and are successful, and it puts a sparkle in their eye. It’s powerful.”

I’ve worked with adults in their 30s and 40s who’ve never had a certificate in their lives. We deal with people who have had life experiences that have pushed them aside. We try to give them not only a piece of paper but a feeling of, ‘I can be successful. I can really do this.’
Dr. Debbie Faubus-Kendrick, Crawford County Adult Education Director

ROOM FOR ALL

Another strength of this alternative sentencing program is the building itself. The court is housed within an elementary school that was vacated by the Van Buren School District, and it is a haven for collaboration.

“We have the whole building, and that’s enabled us to not only provide enough space for our court people, but to ask other agencies to have a presence,” Judge Baker says. “We also provide space for attorneys to meet here with clients.”

Agencies pay per square foot for their office spaces. Prosecutors, counselors, TANF, SNAP, financial aid, 100 Families, and programs such as Parents as Teachers are in the building. The Division of Workforce Services regularly brings its mobile unit to offer help with building resumes and job searches. Western Arkansas Community Development assists with a food pantry and other needs, such as providing clothing.

Dr. Debbie Faubus-Kendrick was a principal, teacher, coach and counselor before joining Crawford County Adult Education in 2007 and becoming its director in 2015.
Dr. Debbie Faubus-Kendrick was a principal, teacher, coach and counselor before joining Crawford County Adult Education in 2007 and becoming its director in 2015.

There are two animals on campus, Sam the cat and Olive the dog – who soothe students with test anxieties and offer emotional support for clients and staff. Cognitive behavioral therapy is offered. The Crawford County Conservation District has a presence in the building and built a community garden.

A former gymnasium serves as a community meeting center, where Faubus-Kendrick periodically gathers area agencies, counselors, and leadership to discuss needs in the county.

Dr. Faubus-Kendrick believes in the adage, “If you do the right thing by people, it’s going to come out all right.”

Clients feel supported and develop relationships with providers. As they walk through the hallways, Dr. Faubus-Kendrick likes to hear them being encouraged, and to encourage them herself, “Hey buddy, whatcha need? We’re here for you.”

“If I’m not eating and don’t have a place to live, I don’t care what you have to say to me. Show me you care and help me first,” Faubus-Kendrick says.

For a county interested in developing a similar program, Dr. Faubus-Kendrick recommends starting with a meal.

“Of course, we always include food. Have a luncheon and invite judges, prosecuting attorneys, whoever’s going to be in that pipeline.”

These efforts, in a recent year, led to Crawford County Adult Education being one of nine programs in the U.S. to receive a National Initiative Award for its community diversion efforts.

“This is my bucket list. This is what I wanted. I worked 41 years to get here,” Faubus-Kendrick says.

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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