Judge Bill Gravell works to get juvenile offenders back on the right track
Theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Basically, love means . . . responsibility to our family, toward our nation, toward our civilization . . . toward the universe of mankind.” This quote came to mind as I observed Judge Bill Gravell at work, where aims to seek a balance between upholding the duties of his position and doing what he can to help youth respond responsibly to difficult circumstances.
Tall and distinguished in his robes, Gravell is Justice of the Peace, Williamson County Precinct #3. For the first 30 years of his professional life, he was a minister. He spent 23 of those years working with youth. “I worked with teenagers, and I’ve always invested in kids. I think we solve our community problems by investing in our kids spiritually, emotionally, and physically if we need to,” Gravell says. “The reason I’m involved as the Justice of the Peace,” he continues, “is because I think kids are valuable to our community, and I think they’re pretty valuable to God.”
Elected in March 2014, Gravell rules on Class C misdemeanors. “If you go over to the county jail—and I’m estimating here—90 percent of the people do not have a high school education, and I would venture to say that 70 to 80 percent of the people in jail are there for some type of drug substance-related action or actions that were the result of that,” he explains. “We’ve got to clear out the jails.”
“We see a lot of first-time offenders in the area of substance abuse,” he continues, “and we try to be proactive.” Gravell doesn’t believe in the “cuff ’em and scuff ’em” mentality; that is, arrest people and and jail them. Rather, his approach takes after that of Barney Fife, the hapless but kind deputy in the 1960s comedy series The Andy Griffith Show. Fife often tells Sheriff Andy Taylor, “Andy, we got to nip it in the bud.”
Gravell addresses juveniles and their parents directly and kindly. “But don’t take my kindness as weakness,” he warns. To help youths become responsible, he demands that they and their parents be truthful. After giving an offender plea options, Gravell looks directly at the person, and the person must look directly back at him. “Before I decide on your sentence,” he says, “I want you to tell me what happened. I’m good at being a judge, and I already know the answers, but I want to know that you will tell the truth.”
After the youth finishes telling his or her story, Gravell asks a few questions and then determines the sentence, which may involve attending teen court, paying a fine, doing community service, attending counseling sessions, or a combination of these—whatever he feels will get the young person on the right track.
Young people may make poor decisions, “but that doesn’t make them bad people. It doesn’t mean they are hopeless. I don’t want the parents to beat themselves up,” Gravell says. “Georgetown places a high value on kids,” he says. “Look at the quality of our schools, public and private, and our leadership. It’s a good place to be.”
Judge Bill Gravell currently serves as President of the Central Texas chapter of the Justice of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas. Williamson County Precinct #3 primarily handles Class C misdemeanors, offenses that are punishable by a fine of up to $500.