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AFSCME Members Establish Innovative Youth Court

For more than a decade, AFSCME Local 1624 Pres. Judy Cortez and Austin Municipal Court Judge John Vasquez, an AFSCME member since 1996, have been working in their free time to establish a mobile problem-solving youth court, or Youth Diversion Program, which works to reform juvenile behavior using a community-based approach rather than punishing children who commit low-level misdemeanors at school or in the community.
By Omar Tewfik ·
AFSCME Members Establish Innovative Youth Court
Working to help youth get back on track are, from left, Associate Court Judge Leonard Saenz, Local 1624 Pres. Judy Cortez and Municipal Court Associate Judge John Vasquez.

AUSTIN, Texas – AFSCME members are behind an innovative initiative here to keep youth out of the Texas court system and out of jail. 

For more than a decade, AFSCME Local 1624 Pres. Judy Cortez and Austin Municipal Court Judge John Vasquez, an AFSCME member since 1996, have been working in their free time to establish a mobile problem-solving youth court, or Youth Diversion Program, which works to reform juvenile behavior using a community-based approach rather than punishing children who commit low-level misdemeanors at school or in the community.

“This is 10 years of AFSCME-driven work,” said Cortez, an employee of the Travis County Health and Human Services and Veterans Service Department. It involves working closely with school administrators, elected officials, social service organizations and members of the community.

“Our model primarily focuses on middle-school kids and provides solutions that help, not just punish kids who face misdemeanor charges,” she said. 

In Texas, low level misdemeanors (also called Class C Misdemeanors) include offenses such as theft of property valued at less than $50, disorderly conduct and truancy. They are punishable with fines up to $500. But when children and their parents or guardians fail to pay, they are often slapped with heavier fines they simply can’t afford. The legal repercussions can stay with youngsters for their entire lives, interfering with job opportunities well after graduation.

Cortez, also a past member of the City of Austin Human Rights Commission, points out that this spiral to the bottom can begin when children receive initial citations due to no fault of their own. “Imagine you have to miss school because you’re the only one who can take care of a sick family member because the parent has to go to work, and then you’re faced with fines and penalties,” she said.

Cortez enlisted the help of a fellow AFSCME member, Judge Leonard Saenz, who served as a truancy judge in Austin. Local 1624 has members in every department throughout the City of Austin and Travis County. 

Now in its early stages, the youth court is staffed by two juvenile case managers and a traveling judge who works directly onsite with Austin school administrators and a Neighborhood Conference Committee comprised of invested volunteers from the local community. When a child is caught missing school, possessing drug paraphernalia or violating a curfew, for example, case workers recommend sending the juvenile to a substance abuse class, afterschool tutoring or sports participation for esteem and team building.

If those recourses do not work, the judge may refer the student to the Neighborhood Conference Committee to draw up a binding contract to address the student’s behavior. “The committee and the court are really about solving problems, community engagement and accountability in the success of our youth,” said Cortez.

 

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