Elijah Williams
Elijah Williams (Melanie Bell)

When Broward Circuit Judge Elijah Williams tells juvenile defendants it doesn’t matter where they live but who they have in their lives, he speaks from experience.

Williams grew up in Fort Lauderdale’s Dixie Court housing project, swept floors at a florist after school and set his sights far from any courtroom.

“I was going to be a truck driver,” he said. “I had it all planned out. I was going to work the Fort Lauderdale to Nashville, Tenn., route because the music was really good.”

A high school counselor and a girlfriend persuaded his mind. The counselor convinced him to apply to the University of Florida, which was where the girlfriend was headed.

Four years later, he said, the same girl told him, “You’re a good talker. You should go to law school.”

He did and cites it as one of the examples for why he tells the kids who come before him now that “It’s who you surround yourself with. … I had relationships that were very positive in my life, that gave me direction. … A lot of these kids are on the wrong path because of peer influence. They have the wrong influences in their life.”

After law school he applied to the FBI and the Air Force. Both said yes the same day. He chose the judge advocate general’s corps because once again of the advice of a girlfriend who told him it would give him a chance to travel and get experience practicing law.

It was there that he met his wife, a career Air Force officer.

He got out of the service after five years and went to work for the Broward state attorney’s office. Two years later, he became counsel for the sheriff’s office, first at an outside firm and later as in-house counsel.

On A Mission

His wife and two mentors persuaded him to seek a seat on the bench. He applied and was appointed in 2002.

He started in the adult criminal division and planned to stay there. But four years later, he sentenced a juvenile as an adult to 20-plus years in prison.

Afterward, Williams said the boy’s attorney asked to vent, “not at you, but at the system. … She said, ‘The juvenile justice system does not work. It is a disgrace, and we need judges like you working in juvenile delinquency.’ “

She said he would bring a much-needed, different outlook.

Williams got up and went straight across the hall to the chief judge and asked to be transferred.

“Nobody wants to go into juvenile delinquency,” the chief judge told him. “It’s yours.”

Williams has been there ever since, hoping to make a difference.

“As a society I think we are at war to win the hearts, minds and souls of an entire generation of children. So I walk into my court every single day on a mission—how do I change the mindset of a child,” he said. “I think what I bring to it is I’ve lived in many of those situations and circumstances they live. I’ve walked those same streets.”

“The vast majority of children I see are African-American males,” he added. “On the one hand when I see them sitting over there in the box I see a reflection of myself. … But on the other hand I also see there’s very little time for nonsense.”

He said he tells them, “There are only three things you have to do to become a success in this country—read a lot of books, keep your mouth shut and keep your nose clean.”

Diversion Program

That, too, is based on his own experience. He owns, by his count, more than 28,000 books and buys hundreds of dollars worth more every month.

Two years ago, he was invited to participate in what became the Promise Program, aimed at breaking “the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline.”

The principle involves children accused of nonviolent misdemeanors. An arrest could have lasting effects, hurting their chances of getting into the military or getting a job and, with their options limited, increasing their odds of getting arrested again as adults.

Now in its first full year, he said over 1,000 kids have been diverted to the program where they get behavior modification and guidance instead of jail.

“It gives them a chance to get the help they need rather than an outright arrest,” Williams said.

However, he added, “That’s not to say I don’t commit a lot of kids to juvenile facilities. I do believe that commitment has a purpose, and I’m told that I do commit a large amount of kids compared to other juvenile judges. And the reason I do that is a commitment facility gives a child a structure and a sense of discipline.”