Justice Forward

Newly Branded Nonprofit Supports Harris County Specialty Courts

Did you know Harris County offers specialty courts that serve unique needs of populations like veterans… and that Houston Recovery Center employs graduates from these courts?

A National Model for Criminal Justice Reform Here in Houston

Justice Forward 1

STAR Drug Court graduation | photo: Jeff McShan

Specialty courts are designed to address the underlying social and behavioral factors that drive criminal behavior. They began in 2003 with Harris County STAR Drug Court, supported by a nonprofit, the Harris County Drug Court Foundation (HCDCF), that funds clients’ social service needs. Rebranded as Justice Forward in July 2020, the foundation expanded its mission and services to work with nine specialty court programs across 18 courts in Harris County.

“I really think this is the future of criminal justice,” says Devon Anderson, CEO of Justice Forward. “We need to acknowledge there are lots of drivers into the criminal justice system. They are driven there by poverty, drug addiction, mental illness… If we can solve those problems, then we don’t see them again (in court).”

Hope in action

Harris County specialty courts include Veterans’ Court, Felony Mental Health Court, SOBER Court, STAR Drug Court, Positive Pathways to Family Reunification Court along with juvenile courts that focus on youth involved in sex trafficking, mental health, gang association, and drug misuse.

The nonprofit’s role is to fund a variety of social services that specialty court clients need to become successful and productive citizens including counseling, recovery coaching, transitional housing, transportation vouchers, job coaching, workforce development training, and more.

Justice Forward 2

Devon Anderson, CEO, Justice Forward | photo: Chris Gillett

“People have to be treated as people, not as a case or docket number,” Anderson relates. “They need individual treatment plans that meet them where they are.”

The HCDCF board, chaired by Deborah Keyser, hired Anderson as its Executive Director in 2019. She was its first paid employee and a natural choice based on her experience as a presiding judge in STAR Drug Court for three years and for her service on the HCDCF board while a criminal defense attorney. Anderson is now President/CEO of Justice Forward.

Before Justice Forward, specialty courts competed with each other to be funded. Now there is one foundation supporting all the courts.

“We’re raising money for all of them,” she says. “It’s just a better way. And we are the first strategic alliance initiative of its kind in Texas.”

The courts now collaborate with each other in the newly formed Court Alliance Council, which brings together representatives from each court in the same room. Previously, they worked in their own silo.

“When you have leaders in the same area, working together, you just get so much more done,” Anderson relates.

Impact to Houston

People going through specialty courts are more likely to be successful long term, says Anderson. Hundreds of people have been helped through HCDCF with recidivism rates around 30 percent, lower than national rates cited by Bureau of Justice statistics.

“People are back with their family, hopefully working, paying taxes, and not committing more crimes,” says Anderson. “That’s our biggest goal, breaking the cycle of incarceration.”

Want to provide support? Justice Forward is hosting a Picnic for Progress October 22, 6 pm – 8 pm. This outdoor, socially distanced picnic is in place of the usual indoor fundraising luncheon – due to the coronavirus.

The team is even providing Justice Forward face masks to give away to attendees!