Shared from the 10/7/2018 San Antonio Express eEdition


Cycles broken, lives changed in this court

Photos by Josie Norris / San Antonio Express-News

Graduates wipe away tears during the third Esperanza Court program graduation at Crosspoint Chapel on Sept. 28. Esperanza Court is a a model for how the criminal justice system should work. It treats root causes, and it invests on the front end to change lives, and then saves taxpayers on the back end.


Judge Lorina Rummel hugs a program graduate last month. “We make sure we deal with their underlying trauma because it’s the underlying trauma that very often leads to addiction,” she says.


Getting arrested for prostitution saved Lirio’s life.

She once roamed the streets and sold herself to feed a heroin habit. She hated herself for this. Hated the marks on her arms. Hated the random cars she got into. The awful men who used her. Hated the feeling of wanting to change, but not knowing how.

She has slept on the streets. She has been robbed at knife-point. She has been sexually assaulted.

At her lowest points, Lirio never imagined this moment. Bravely taking the podium at Crosspoint Chapel on the East Side late last month to speak at Esperanza Court’s most recent graduation. Moving a packed house to tears. Showing the world what happens when hope is manifest.

“I was willing to do anything to get my drugs, including selling myself,” she said.

And then she was arrested in August 2016 for felony prostitution — and everything changed. Through her work in Esperanza Court, which focuses on those charged with felony prostitution, she’s been clean for 20 months. She is a waitress. She pays her bills. Keeps an apartment. Talks with her teenage son each week.

“The word ‘normal’ means something very different to me today,” she said.

Lirio was one of 12 graduates — 11 women and one man — to complete the Esperanza Court program, a commitment of more than two years. Each had been arrested for prostitution and often many other offenses.

To be arrested for prostitution is to be a victim of crime, which is why I am withholding Lirio’s last name. These are survivors of human trafficking. They are often survivors of sexual and physical abuse. They are recovering addicts caught in the cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and arrest.

Lirio, 35, survived an abusive relationship. She also had been arrested on misdemeanor prostitution charges, “but all I did was get out of jail and go back to doing the same thing,” she said.

And then Esperanza Court provided the tools to break that cycle.

“We make sure we deal with their underlying trauma because it’s the underlying trauma that very often leads to addiction,” said District Judge Lorina Rummel, who oversees Esperanza Court.

Esperanza Court is like probation dialed up to 11. Participants are in counseling five days a week for the first year of the program. They initially live in jail. They will often spend months in treatment. Community service is required. So are regular drug and alcohol tests. Commitments are honored. Amends are made.

Change does not come easy. When Lirio transitioned from jail to a halfway house, she went on the run for a handful of days until she was arrested again for prostitution.

Rummel could have dropped her, but instead she asked Lirio if she really wanted to transform.

“I expect steps backward,” Rummel said. “I am just hoping for more steps forward.”

Most of the time, one foot follows the other. Depending on the measurement, Esperanza Court’s recidivism is between 15 and 30 percent. Treatment is expensive, but not nearly as costly as sending these graduates back to prison, Rummel said.

In this way, Esperanza Court is a model for how the criminal justice system should work. It treats root causes. Invests on the front end to change lives and then saves taxpayers on the back end. It recognizes people who are not risks to society. It’s a court that should be replicated at the misdemeanor level.

“These individuals, when you look at the crimes, they really pose a risk to themselves,” Rummel said.

Commencement means beginning. To graduate is to celebrate what is to come, not what has been accomplished. And for Lirio there is so much work yet to do.

She struggles to trust men. She is still on probation. She speaks to her teenage son, who lives on the East Coast, but has yet to see him in person. She is estranged from her 8-year-old son, who was adopted by family members.

“Ultimately, I chose drugs over my kids, and it's hard to live with that sometimes,” she said.

But she also knows if she stays on this path, she will reconnect with her younger son one day, “and I will be ready for that.”

The plan is to complete probation, move closer to family in Florida, pursue school and a career.

“I have never known a feeling like this,” Lirio said. “A sense of accomplishment. And I want to keep feeling this because I love making myself proud and I love making (my family) proud.”

From hate to love. From hopeless to hope. From shame to pride. These are the essential steps of life’s boundless journey.

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