LaPlace judge recognized for humanitarian side

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 17, 2013

By Kimberly Hopson

LAPLACE – Mary Hotard Becnel, the St. John the Baptist Parish Division B  40th Judicial District Judge, was recently named Public Official of the Year by the Louisiana Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
The Loyola University College of Law alumnus said she was taken aback when she received the award.
“I was very surprised. It was very unexpected. I was very happy to receive it, but at the same time I know so many other judges and public officials who do similar things to what I do,” she said. “So I felt very humbled that I was selected over other people.”
The award recognizes an individual’s contributions to both his or her profession and community — Becnel has definitely made a mark in both areas at once. Becnel said that at first, she didn’t realize that becoming a judge would include addressing social issues as well as criminal.
“When I became a judge, I had no idea that I was going to be a social worker too. When you do family, juvenile and criminal (court), there’s so many underlying mental and physical social issues involved that you can’t help finding yourself having to address the social issues at some point,” she said.
In response to those social issues, Becnel instituted a juvenile monitoring program, truancy court and her very own charm school. Becnel said truancy court is vital because there are usually many underlying issues when children stop going to school.
Charm School came about in 2005 when Becnel noticed how many young girls she saw coming through her courtroom for minor offenses. True to her beliefs as a public servant, she chose to use her position to help better the young women.
“I always kept saying to myself at the end of juvenile cases, ‘Oh my gosh, these girls need charm school.’ And one day, I decided ‘You know what? I’m the only one who can make them go.’ So I created my own charm school,” she said.
The program has a joint agreement with the District Attorney’s Office that the girls in question will not be prosecuted if they attend the classes. Each designee must attend three classes with her mothers or another female figure in her life. There, they learn about basic ettiquette, manners, self-control and conflict resolution from Becnel herself and her associates attorney, Nghana Lewis Gauff, and elementary school teacher Laurie Adams. Becnel said the program also heavily stresses staying in school and being a lady above all.  
“We just give them a lot of girly attention that most of these girls never get. My focus throughout is being a lady. Theres a difference between being a lady and woman, so which one do you want to be?” she said.
Becnel said she has also always had an appreciation for art since childhood, when her parents paid for her to take art lessons since art classes were not available in public school at the time. As a result, she was a crucial part of the founding of the River Regions Arts and Humanities Council in 1997. Although she doesn’t draw or paint anymore, Becnel said helping to found the council has given her a more indirect way to apply her love of the arts.
“I noticed juveniles coming into my courtroom who didn’t have outlets for developing talents or relieving some of their stress and just relieving themselves of whatever is going on in their lives. There is so much focus in schools on sports, but not everybody is sports-minded,” she said.
She commissions works of art from children that appear in her court and often uses them as decoration for her cour room. The River Regions Arts and Humanities Council gives approximately $35,000 a year to various schools and organizations in the River Parishes for art-related projects.
The grandmother of five said that through her work she hopes to make people aware of the hard work that any individual puts into being a public servant of any kind.
“I really think being a public servant is going beyond your job description. It’s more than just being a judge in the court room — we have the opportunity to see what’s needed in our community, and we also have the opportunity to do something about it,” said.