EAGLE PASS — It’s marijuana harvest season in Mexico, and Bruce Ballou knows what that can mean for his team of juvenile probation officers: another round of teenage drug mules caught with hundreds of pounds of pot.
This year, though, Ballou, the chief juvenile probation officer for Maverick, Zavala and Dimmit counties, is hopeful that a recent trend will continue. Last fiscal year just about 300 cases were referred to the department, about one-third fewer than the 450 cases referred to the department in 2012. Ballou said it's a sign that the probation department's focus on rehabilitation is working for the troubled youths who are sent there. Some in this community, though, have worried about safety and security at the unconventional facility after a counselor there was assaulted earlier this year by a young offender.
The department started the rehabilitation-focused program and opened a special dorm for those youths in February in an old Air Force base on the outskirts of Eagle Pass. It provides pre- and post-adjudication services, probation, drug and alcohol treatment, and after-school detention for students in the local alternative education program.
In March, a teenager who was in the facility for less than a day assaulted 23-year-old counselor Jose Luis Perez with a blunt object and then fled. Perez said that during the fight — which left him bloodied and hospitalized — he worried that other teenagers at the unit, four in all, would jump in against him. Instead, one asked Perez what to do and called the sheriff’s department. Perez said he realized then that he had made a difference for at least one of the teenagers.
“They could have taken over the incident, but instead they took a different course of action,” he said.
The incident, he said, sparked a community debate over the center.
“They didn’t have any confidence in us out there,” he said. “I had a lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you going back?’"
Perez, an Eagle Pass native who reached out to Ballou about a job before he graduated from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said he stayed because he could have easily gone down the same road as the teenagers in his care.
“I had a lot of friends that went that route. One of my best friends just got out of federal prison,” he said. “Growing up, being from a border town, I saw a lot.”
Ballou concedes that some kids will fall through the cracks and that the situation in Mexico could worsen with the next bullet fired. But his hopes are buoyed by the recent numbers. There was a significant drop in felony referrals last fiscal year, from about 150 in 2012 to about 80. Teens caught with heavy drug loads — 100 pounds or more — also decreased dramatically, from 38 cases to two.
Ballou attributed the drop to a number of factors, including less violence in Mexico across the border. But he also said the department’s “restorative justice” approach — with more focus on rehabilitation — has helped keep recidivism rates low.
“Not too often do you have spontaneous felony offenses. They are going to have to think about” committing them, Ballou said. “So to reduce that by about 50 percent, that’s pretty significant.”
Although Eagle Pass and the surrounding communities straddle the Rio Grande, O.J. Freeman, the department’s assistant chief, said there haven’t been any undocumented immigrants referred to the program in more than a year. The offenders are typically U.S. citizens who succumb to the temptation of easy cash in a rough economy, or are the products of a rough family background in which many of their parents are in the same trouble, Ballou said.
The three-county area is one of the poorest in the state. Maverick County’s poverty rate is 31.5 percent, compared with the state’s average of 17 percent. Dimmit County sits at 33 percent and Zavala at 39 percent, according to U.S. census data.
The treatment the probation department provides includes drug tests and detention, but there is also an educational component, Ballou said, which helps fill the learning gaps left open by a broken home.
“This [staff] of young, energetic folks are really tied in to the kids, so the kids have someone they can call, the kids have someone that gives a shit about them,” he said. “They are really not the probation officer that wears the badge and carries the handcuffs and is going to be punitive in their approach.”
The staff members are licensed counselors, not peace officers, though officers are close by in case of violence. And not all make it to Ballou or Freeman for rehabilitation. They said they know from the start which juveniles are lost causes.
“The hard decisions are [determining] which of those kids are going to make it and which are not,” Ballou said. “And if I had the formula for that, I would have all the answers to all the questions in juvenile justice.”
The department’s annual budget is about $1.3 million, he said. It includes about $55,000 for a treatment center that was highly anticipated by the community last year. The county partially funded and garnered donations to refurbish a portion of an old airfield base that serves as the Border Hope Restorative Justice Center.
It opened in February, but the dormitory was temporarily shuttered because it lacked a fire alarm and sprinkler system. Ballou said the equipment should be installed next month. In the meantime, an adjacent building that houses the center’s kitchen and learning center remains open.
Some in the community have rallied around Ballou’s efforts. The center was partially funded through gifts from charitable organizations and the business community. Earlier this year, the Maverick County Bar Association donated about $10,000 for a basketball court.
Ballou said he remains optimistic that the department is on the right path despite reports of increased activity across the border.
"What we’ve heard is they ran a bunch of Zetas off from [the Mexican city of] Piedras Negras and they are starting to drift back in,” he said. “It seems that activity is picking up a bit."
The Zetas, a criminal gang that controls major drug crossing routes into Texas and beyond, continues to battle for control of the territory across the border from Eagle Pass and other border cities.
As far as another incident at the center, Freeman said it’s possible. But it’s just par for the course.
“I can’t think of a facility across Texas that is free from incidents, and if there is, I’d like to work there,” he said. “Things happen, and you just deal with them. But here, we have kids that graduated that are still clean.”