Rainey Webb: The Journey Toward Restorative Justice
Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Rainey Webb learned the term “justice” at a very young age. “Both my parents had servant hearts. They believed in being involved in the community. My mom served on the school board, and her goal was that every child in the school district had a fair chance at education. My mom instilled in me a deep sense of justice. She was always fighting for the underdog,” Rainey said.
Rainey went to UT Austin for undergrad and graduated with a degree in social work, but as soon as she had done her field study, she knew she did not want to be a social worker. She knew she wanted to be involved in improving others’ lives, but the life of social work didn’t feel natural for her. In discussing it with her parents, her mom said, “I’ve always thought you should go to law school.” When Rainey began law school at Texas Wesleyan University, she knew right away it was the perfect fit.
As soon as Rainey started law school, she also began interning at the DA’s office in Fort Worth. After graduating, she transitioned and began working for the judge who runs the domestic violence court in Tarrant county. “She was starting a grant program for diversion out of jail and took into account the possibility of family reunification. If the offender went through a year of counseling and if the victim agreed to it, at the end of the year, that case was dismissed,” Rainey shared. After working in the domestic violence court, she returned to her work in the Tarrant County DA’s office.
Within the criminal justice system, there are three different views on how the system should work. Punishment, deterrence, or rehabilitation. Punishment – that the offender should be punished for their actions. Deterrence – that the consequences of offenders’ actions will deter other individuals from committing crime. Rehabilitation – that some individuals are capable of turning their lives around.
“Watching people go through the diversion program, that’s when I knew there was a lot of power in the criminal justice system, and the goal of this program was rehabilitation. It made me think of the offenders on an individual level,” Rainey said. “Everyone who comes in, they didn’t just fall here – there’s a story that led up to here. There are some people who should never get out of prison, but the majority of people have just had some really tough breaks and have had very tough circumstances, and have been victims themselves, or didn’t have the opportunity to make better choices.”
Though Rainey’s personal view of the system is almost always the rehabilitation stance, she can respect the view of any other judge or attorney as long as they have a “why.” “If you can answer the ‘why,’ and have a sound reason, I respect that,” Rainey shared. She feels strongly about this because she recognizes the gravity of working for the criminal justice system. It is not something to take lightly – each attorney can greatly affect someone’s life. “You can have a great impact on the person charged and the victim who has been damaged, so it is a lot of recognizing the power you have and the discretion that you have in that position,” Rainey said. To whom much is given, much is expected.
Rainey’s last assignment in the DA’s office was to the Crimes Against Children unit. All of the cases are specifically physical or sexual abuse of children, or murder of a child under 8 years of age . It was a great fit for Rainey. “For my personality, I had been situated where I could take the emotion out of it but I could still have the compassion for the victims and families. At the time, I thought I could leave it behind at work. Now looking back, there’s no way you can prosecute and look at that much abuse and damage to young children without it having an affect on you,” Rainey said.
When an opening came up for a magistrate judge position in Tarrant County, Rainey decided to apply. She realized that as much as she loved working with young victims, it was not something she could do forever. Rainey became a judge in 2013, and has used her post to make a positive impact on her community.
“My first day as a judge, I was nervous. As a prosecutor, you sit and listen to what the judge says a million times, but until you actually have to say it and do it, it’s a whole different deal. I remember coming from the role of an advocate to here – I told myself, ‘I have to remember my role is not to advocate but just to make sure the rules get followed,’” Rainey said.
“In court rooms, there’s a nudge to do things quickly. One of the things I did learn the hard way is that no decision needs to be made quickly. You have all these eyes looking at you, waiting for you to make the decision, and if you’re not equipped in that moment to make the decision, there’s nothing wrong with stepping back and saying, ‘I need to take a look at this and take time to be fair to everyone that’s involved,” she said.
In the six years Rainey has been a judge, she has made a concentrated effort to use great discretion in decisions and has focused specifically on aiding the mentally ill population of Tarrant county. She began and runs a program called the “Enhanced Mental Health Docket.” They identify people who are charged with only misdemeanor level offenses who have a diagnosed mental health issue. Rainey collaborated with MHMR (My Health My Resources) of Tarrant County and their caseworkers set up a treatment plan for the individual and make it a condition of their bond that they get mental health services.
If you stop by Rainey’s office at the courthouse, you’ll see a beautiful painting of a smiling woman’s face. That woman’s name is Cheryl and her life was changed by Rainey’s program. When Cheryl came into the program, she was on probation already out of another court for theft and owed money. She ended up making rainbow loom bracelets on a set she got from her aunt for Christmas, and sold them in the area where she lived with her mom. She paid off $500 in her fees. Through the program and her entrepreneurship, Cheryl paid off her dues and ended her relationship with the criminal justice system. Through a connection of Rainey’s, Cheryl now works for a company called Our Spare Change making jewelry.
Interwoven through her story is Rainey’s deep love for building global relationships. “In the seventh grade, I had a teacher who had moved from South Africa to the states to escape apartheid. He would talk about how amazing and beautiful South Africa was, and I would ask, ‘why aren’t you going back?’ and he told me it wasn’t safe for him to live there because he was black. This was mind boggling to me,” she remembered. Rainey’s seventh grade teacher educated her on the ongoing apartheid, and her fascination with African countries began there.
In law school, Rainey had the chance to study under President Mandela’s chief legal advisor in South Africa. They studied constitutional law with him and another professor who had worked at the UN during the apartheid. “I remember thinking, ‘if I had lived through what they lived through, I would be depressed and angry and bitter, and I would hate every white person I met,’ but it couldn’t be more opposite. They were so warm and loving toward us. The people of South Africa are incredibly resilient,” Rainey said.
Fast forward to 2012, where Rainey was working at a craft sale next to a booth selling Ugandan beads. The woman selling the beads worked for ALARM – African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministry. ALARM works to create servant leaders in Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Congo. They do this by training attorneys, judges, police officers, members of parliament, people in the government, and pastors. Rainey fell in love with the mission immediately, and began selling jewelry for ALARM to people she knew.
ALARM was started by a man named Celestin who grew up in Rwanda. He lost several members of his family to the Rwandan genocide, and creating this nonprofit was his response to this great calamity. “He truly believed God’s purpose for him was to bring reconciliation through the leaders of the country. Just seeing what ALARM has done – the power of reconciliation that they’ve been a part of – their staff members in each country truly believe in laying down their lives to restore their country,” Rainey shared.
Though selling jewelry to raise money for ALARM gave Rainey great joy, she knew she wanted to do some hands-on work with ALARM. Soon after meeting the woman at the craft sale, Rainey was on a team headed to the Congo to train up attorneys at an ALARM conference. “The way the conferences work is they cater the curriculum to what the country staff asks for. The Congo conference was learning how to prosecute sexual assault violators. As a result of the conference, they’ve been able to prosecute violators more effectively and have helped people who had been falsely imprisoned,” Rainey said.
The role Americans play in these African countries is less the idea that the countries inherently need American help, but more that Americans want to stand with them in solidarity. “By partnering with attorneys and pastors in these war-torn or recovering countries, we are saying, ‘we are in this with you,’” Rainey said.
Rainey continues to work with ALARM on an ongoing basis, making trips to different African countries whenever she is able. In Rainey’s free time outside of work, when she isn’t traveling with ALARM, she can be found spending time with her twin 13-year-olds and husband who served on the SWAT team of the Dallas Police Department for 20 years.
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Story and photos by Hunter Lacey.