As a former police officer, prosecutor, and a district judge, Robert Newsom would appear to typify Texas law and order.
Currently, he splits his time serving as Hopkins County’s chief administrator and a part-time probate judge whose judicial philosophy is influenced by his faith and the principles of justice and compassion.
“I believe in the law. I promote the law. I stand with the law,” explained Newsom, who is also an ordained minister through Christ for the Nations. “On the other hand, there’s a place for mercy built into our law.”
State officials have embraced a similar focus on rehabilitation, which has helped to make the Lone Star State a leader in prison reform. Since 2011, its crime rate has fallen and fewer Texans are behind bars (down from 156,000 in 2011 to 146,000). Texas is now on track to closing its eighth prison facility in six years by the end of September 2017, four of which shuttered this year saving the state a projected $49.5 million.
No Mercy from Judge Newsom’s Court
Yet when Ron Adkins appeared before Judge Newsom in 1997, he found no such mercy.
Texas is a “three strikes” law state, which aims to keep repeat offenders locked up for life. As a serial offender during an era of “tough on crime” sentencing guidelines, the jury hammered him with a whopping 495-year sentence for a string of home burglaries: 99 years for each of the five counts on which he was charged.
He was 22 years old when he was shipped off to prison and eventually picked up an additional five-year sentence for possession of an unauthorized cell phone. That raised his total sentence to 500 years. With no hope of ever leaving lock down, he lashed out.
The Jailhouse Bad Guy
“I set about making a reputation for myself, making a life for myself in the prison,” Adkins explained. “I became really violent.”
He joined a prison gang and developed a dangerous persona synonymous with trouble – racking up 250 prison violations for constantly fighting with other inmates and staff. His belligerence was so out of control that multiple prison guards had to suit up to escort him to the shower room, shackled at his hands and feet.
His violent behavior ultimately landed him in solitary confinement, where Adkins would eventually spend 13 years.
Alone and suicidal, he turned to God and a worn-out Bible he initially didn’t bother to read.
“Half the pages were missing because I had been using it for rolling papers. I had been smoking cigarettes with Bible papers,” Adkins chuckled. “All that was left of the Bible was the New Testament.”
Finding Grace in the Pages of a Battered Bible
From the pages that were left intact, Adkins said he learned about grace, forgiveness, and God’s love, which drove him to quit the gang and join a prison Bible study instead. He also enrolled in ministry courses and managed to stay out of trouble for the remainder of his time in prison.
In 2012, while Adkins was growing in his faith and continued to exhibit “good behavior,” he experienced his first miracle: a surprise review that resulted in an early parole more than 80 years before his projected eligibility in 2095. After nearly a quarter century of incarceration, he was released in May 2015.
“It was awesome. I didn’t even think it was real until I actually got out of the gate,” Adkins recalled.
Once out of prison, he found work as a heavy equipment operator; and during his time off, he stretched his faith by sharing his testimony at churches and criminal justice reform conferences, which is where he met his wife, Dawn Knighton – also a former felon and now a licensed Christian counselor.
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