EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
BURNET — Burnet County Magistrate Kirk Noaker knows when someone stands before him in his small county jail courtroom, the arrest paperwork sitting on his desk doesn’t tell the entire story, especially when it comes to those battling drug or alcohol issues. Though he’s a judge, Noaker isn’t judging the person for their substance abuse problems. Instead, he wants to help them get a better grip on their lives.
It’s not something his job requires him to do, but Noaker isn’t the typical magistrate. As a magistrate, Noaker has a certain judicial standing similar to that of a justice of the peace. At the county jail, the magistrate often meets with someone recently processed into the facility and can set and review bails as well as conditions of release and appoint legal counsel.
Noaker could just give the defendants a bond option to ensure they show up for their court dates following their release from jail after being charged. However, many of the people Noaker sees who are dealing with drug, alcohol, or substance abuse issues aren’t getting the help they need, especially after they bond out of jail or are found not guilty of the crime.
“What’s the good in that?” Noaker asked. “It just puts them back out there without any tools or resources to help themselves. So, there’s a good chance they’ll reoffend and be right back here.
“It’s a cycle,” he added.
Noaker, along with others in the Burnet County criminal justice and mental health community, crafted a unique method to help those who come before him with abuse issues.
He describes it as “front loading.”
Typically, there are two types of bonds: surety and personal recognizance. Under a surety bond, a person must put up a monetary amount, often through a bond agency, which helps ensure the defendant follows the bond conditions and appears in court at the appointed times. Under a personal bond, a judge releases the individual without requiring a monetary bail on the promise the person will adhere to the bond conditions and appear in court at the appointed times.
Under a more traditional bond hearing before a magistrate, the judge might simply assign a bond amount or a personal recognizance bond with stipulations, especially in situations of driving while under the influence. If the person has a drug or alcohol problem, they are still pretty much on their own until the case goes through the entire adjudication process.
If the individual is found guilty of the charge or pleads to a lesser related charge, the court then might require him or her to undergo treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.
However, the adjudication process can take months and even a year or more.
Noaker flips the process around, thus “front loading.”
“I’ll make it a term of their bond to address that abuse,” he said.
Noaker and magistrate court clerk Tamara Tinney give the defendant a document ordering them to contact Bluebonnet Trails Community Services within 72 hours of their release from jail. This is “strictly for the purposes of addressing potential abuse issues,” the document states.
Bluebonnet Trails Community Services offers mental health services, including programs for those struggling with drug or alcohol abuse.
Jack Housworth, Bluebonnet Trails director of substance, heads up the drug- and alcohol-abuse programs. The facility offers outpatient programs and something more.
“We try to instill them with hope,” Housworth said.
For those coming to Bluebonnet Trails from magistrate’s court, this could be the first time they’ve imagined a life free from the grips of addiction.
Housworth agreed that getting people help in the beginning of the legal proceedings is a big step toward improving their lives as well as keeping them from getting arrested again.
Courtney Bearden, Bluebonnet Trails director of nursing, pointed out that when Noaker or other judges serving as magistrate refer a person, it might be the first time an individual has received any substance-abuse help.
“Before, they might have not known where to go for help or even that help was available,” she said.
If it sounds like Noaker is a touchy-feely kind of guy who says all you have to do is just hug someone and they’ll be OK, then you don’t know very well. Noaker, a streetwise Detroit kid, spent 27 years at just about every level of law enforcement. After a stint in the military, he joined the Baltimore Police Department then moved to the Washington County (Maryland) Sheriff’s Office. He later worked in federal law enforcement, including with the Drug Enforcement Administration (Task Force), the FBI (Task Force), and the U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service.
Until recently, Noaker would have described himself as pretty clear cut when it comes to criminal behavior: If you did it, you did it, and there’s no room for reasons or excuses.
“I had a really black-and-white perspective on the legal system,” he said.
However, his five years as a fact investigator with the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases changed his perspective. He was tasked with investigating capital (usually murder) cases in which the death penalty was sought.
It was a tough five years for Noaker, but it opened his eyes to the gray areas in the legal system.
“I learned we don’t live in a binary world where everything is this or that,” he said. “It forced me to realize that there are a lot of mitigating circumstances in people’s lives. Mitigating doesn’t mean justified, and nobody in the defense community would say it does. You know, it’s possible that if circumstances changed early in my life, it could be me sitting there.”
“After doing defense work for five years, I get it,” he added. “It wasn’t always as simple as I thought it was when it came to why people did something.”
He still believes that if someone breaks the law, they need to be held accountable, but as magistrate, he also looks at the person’s life and circumstances as well tries to help them find a way forward. When Burnet County commissioners appointed Noaker as the criminal magistrate in December 2016, he brought the lessons he learned from his long career in law enforcement and criminal defense work with him.
It helped shape the way he conducts the magistrate office.
Admittedly, it’s not always easy to look for mitigating circumstances when the person standing before him remains defiant and even a tad belligerent. One young woman seemed bent on getting under Noaker’s skin. It was obvious to the magistrate she had a meth addiction, but she didn’t seem to care.
“It was a rough magistrate session,” Noaker recalled. “She didn’t like me, and to be honest, I didn’t really much like her.”
Even with the bond options he had at his disposal, there was probably no way this woman was going to get out of the Burnet County Jail before her case worked its way through the justice system. And, if she did, with the attitude she displayed during her magistrate hearing, she probably wasn’t going to show up for her court dates.
So she went into the regular jail population.
Yet something about the young woman nagged at Noaker. Left on her own, her meth addiction would continue to drag her down, probably to a point where there was no hope of recovery.
“‘Goodness gracious,’ I thought, ‘we need to facilitate services for her,’” the magistrate said.
He and Tinney forwarded the young woman’s information to Bluebonnet Trails staff, who make regular visits to the jail.
While the woman was defiant during magistration, she eventually accepted help.
“(The Bluebonnet Trails staff would) come over for about an hour a week with her and talk about things but also come up with a life plan,” Noaker said. “She stuck with the program. And you know what? I saw a complete physical transformation from the time she came into the Burnet County Jail, and a mental one.”
The woman is currently serving time in a state jail facility, but she sent a card to Noaker thanking him for his help in getting her life under control.
“This card, it tells me we were doing something right,” Noaker said.
When she gets out of state jail, she’ll return to Bluebonnet Trails for more services, the judge added.
Bluebonnet Trails services aren’t limited to those released on bond. Noaker, Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd, the Burnet County justices of the peace, and jail staff also work with the facility’s staff to bring their substance abuse and mental health services into the jail.
“A lot of times, people who are in the jail (who are provided our services) and come out, we already have their information and records,” said Bluebonnet Trails’s Bearden. “It really smooths out the transition and helps us continue their services once they do get out.”
The young woman who sent that letter to Noaker is an example of how connecting defendants with Bluebonnet Trails services early in the legal process can be life-changing.
She’s not an anomaly.
“Of the one hundred to one hundred and twenty people who are in a treatment program (through the jail or magistrate’s office), I can’t think of but two that have been re-arrested,” Housworth said.
Noaker’s numbers reflect Housworth’s experience.
“Since we’ve started this, Bluebonnet Trails has seen a 100 percent increase in referrals (from the jail and magistrate’s office) to the substance-abuse program,” Noaker said. “Eighty percent of those referrals are placed in longterm care.”
By helping these individuals, many of whom are considered “indigent” and have little or no means for assistance or even bonds, Noaker believes they’ll be more reliable when it comes to meeting their criminal justice obligations such as court appearances. He pointed out that those who receive help are less likely to continue the cycle of committing a crime, getting arrested, and going to jail.
“That’s something that helps everyone,” Noaker said.
The Burnet County Magistrate Office’s efforts have caught the attention of people outside the county. In September 2017, Noaker attended a Texas Indigence Defense Commission Workshop in Austin during which officials applauded the local office’s “efforts in adhering to the best practices of determining indigency, interfacing with outside jurisdictions, and in the protocols enacted during the defendant’s application for a court-appointed attorney.”
While Noaker and Tinney handle a substantial part of the office’s operations, he pointed out that the support from Sheriff Boyd, the jail staff, other judges such as Roxanne Nelson, the justices of the peace, and the Bluebonnet Trails staff make it all come together nicely.
“Everyone sees the value of doing this,” Noaker said.
At the end of the day, Noaker can show statistics, reports, and numbers upon numbers that support including a substance-abuse referral as condition of a pre-trial bond release. He’s reminded why he does it when he sees the faces of many of those who come before him after getting arrested on a drug- or alcohol-related charge.
“A lot of them come in here and they just don’t have any hope anymore,” Noaker said. “They don’t think anybody cares. We’re trying to show them that there is hope, and they aren’t alone. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”