Former judge speaks out about justice system, prison - KYTX CBS 19 Tyler Longview News Weather Sports

Former judge speaks out about justice system, prison

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GILMER (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) — Former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Justice and retired State District Judge Charlie Baird told a Yamboree luncheon audience in his hometown Thursday the justice system should perhaps treat non-violent offenders differently than violent ones.

Baird, now of Austin, addressed about 450 people at the luncheon for service clubs at the Gilmer High School gymnasium on the second day of the 75th annual East Texas Yamboree, which continues through Saturday.

"We have lots and lots of people in prison" who are struggling with issues such as drug addiction or emotional illness when they are "not the people we're afraid of," Baird said. "It is the most expensive form of public housing."

He said the state's criminal justice budget had risen 346 percent, adding, "We're mad at people because they used drugs," rather than fearful of them.

Although he expressed support for keeping violent offenders imprisoned, Baird said society should perhaps "embrace" and love ex-inmates, and suggested several ways to do so.

For example, the retired judge told employers to hire ex-offenders who want a "fresh start."

Some 65,000 inmates were released in Texas last year, and all return to their hometowns, Baird said. But they are branded as criminals and convicts and work an average of only seven months a year, earning only $6,000-10,000 annually, he said.

He also urged employers to hire and mentor young persons who are headed for trouble, and remove them from a life of poverty.
Baird also said half of Texas' prison inmates are functionally illiterate, which is a reason they end up in prison. "Teach someone to read," he urged the audience.

He also suggested supporting charitable causes, especially for children.

"Virtually every defendant is poor, and they all have children," Baird said. He said more than one million minor children in the nation have a mother in prison.

"Those people in the criminal justice system love their babies as much as I love mine," he said. Baird has two children, ages six and three.

He said that many who appeared in his 299th District Court during his tenure as judge had a mother or father in prison, and that if he sent them there, too, the odds were "six times greater" their own offspring would go as well.

Baird also discussed the case of the late Tim Cole, which he called "probably my crowning achievement as a judge." He said Cole spent 25 years in prison, where he died of an asthma attack after being falsely convicted of a sexual assault he always denied.

Although DNA testing cleared Cole and the actual rapist confessed to the crime, Baird said, "There was not a judge in Lubbock County that would step forward and say, 'We made a mistake.'" He agreed to lawyers' requests to hold a hearing in his Travis County court, and it resulted in the first posthumous exoneration in state history before Gov. Rick Perry issued a pardon for the dead man, Baird said.
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