The case of the just judge and the kid criminals
Judge David Fraga tries to steer youngsters back onto the straight and narrow
Judge David Fraga reads the details of a case off the computer before asking the teenage defendant for a plea. Fraga’s is the city’s only municipal juvenile court.
Story and photos by Dave Schafer
David Fraga gets more standing ovations than Bruce Springsteen.
Five times a day, black-robed Judge Fraga enters Courtroom 12 at 1400 Lubbock to a packed room of standing people. At a word from Fraga, they sit back down on the benches.
Courtroom 12 is home to the city’s only municipal juvenile court, which runs dockets between 4 and 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. Defendants are 17 or younger and charged with a Class C crime such as theft, breaking curfew, fighting or disrupting a school activity.
Fraga tells the group, which fills 20 benches in two rows, what will happen today and what their options are.
“I decide what type of sentence you get, not your parents,” he says in a forceful voice with scratchy undertones. “You did the crime. So you’ll do the punishment.”
Fraga wants them to understand, perhaps for the first time, that their actions have consequences. Age is no excuse, he says later.
A conviction, whether by plea or judgment, stays on the youth’s record to be seen by colleges reviewing scholarship applications and also by potential employers in 30 years.
Most get his message. The recidivism rate is 20-30 percent, Fraga estimates.
Rarely has a room full of adolescents been as quiet as the courtroom is while Fraga accesses the docket on his computer. Only the air conditioner makes noise.
A teen four benches back says something to his mother. “No talking!” bailiff M. S. Tristan barks. She’s gruff while maintaining order. Away from the youths, she has an easy smile.
Fraga tries to connect with the youngsters who stand on the other side of his bench, and to be flexable with their sometimes harried parents.
One by one, Fraga calls the youths and a parent to stand before him on the other side of his wooden desk. He reads the charge and takes their plea while he squints at the citation details displayed on the flat-screen monitor to his left.
Fraga has to follow seven codes of law: penal, traffic, family, alcohol, tobacco, city curfew, and education.
He was a “goofy” kid, Fraga says. Many of the offenses that his dad spanked him for 40 years ago would land him in this court now.
When a girl starts pleading her case, Fraga stops her. All he wants is a plea: guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Evidence is presented at trial, which is scheduled for his 6 p.m. docket. He advises her to plead not guilty and present her evidence to the lawyers.
Juveniles who plead guilty can perform community service, which for most offenses wipes the conviction from their record and relieves the fine. For traffic, tobacco and alcohol convictions, community service will relieve the fine but not erase the conviction.
Fraga prefers community service because he hopes they’ll discover there’s a life and society beyond their bubble, he says.
For 25 years, Fraga defended juveniles. In 1992, former mayor Bob Lanier appointed him part-time juvenile court judge. In July 2005, Mayor Bill White made his appointment full-time for two years.
While he types in their plea and community service order on the keyboard, Fraga asks the youngsters about school. It’s his way of connecting with them.
“Next person,” Fraga says.
A pudgy preteen girl pleads guilty to joining a gang. When she leaves, Fraga shakes his head.
When a youth talks back to his mother, Tristan talks to him about manners and listening to his mother. Then Fraga talks to him.
Getting these kids to respect and communicate with their parents is important, he says.
Fraga sees 60 to 80 juveniles per hour-long docket. Chadwick Roberts and Trisha Bradley, counselors from the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office, meet with selected youngsters to determine if they need help for a deeper problem.
There are no cases to hear at 6 p.m. Most are dismissed because the arresting officer isn’t there. Some defendants don’t show, so Fraga issues bench warrants in their names.
The hour doesn’t go to waste. An overflow of adults from Court 9 is sent over.
“A lot of judges don’t want to do juveniles,” Fraga says. “Children’s court is more painstaking, more time-consuming. But I prefer it because there’s a chance to get through to them.”
A teen and her mother arrive late for their 6 p.m. trial. Fraga, who is flexible with busy parents, calls for a prosecutor. A hurried prosecutor comes, talks to the mother and daughter, and asks Fraga to drop the charges because the arresting officer hadn’t shown for the trial.
It’s after 7:30 when Fraga starts the 7 p.m. juvenile docket. He speeds through that, then through the 8 p.m. docket. 9 p.m. has a light docket.
Then comes word. He’ll get the overflow from courts 9 and 17. By now his salt and pepper hair – heavy on the salt – is disheveled.
“Never a dull moment,” he says as he prepares for the next wave.
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