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Federal Offenders with Drug Problems Get Special Help
Angel, a heroin addict for 30 of his 53 years, had been in and out of
federal prison. Given supervised release again in early 2006, he knew
the odds were against him.
He voluntarily entered the Court Assisted Recovery Effort
(C.A.R.E.) offered to offenders at high risk of recidivism by the
District of Massachusetts but relapsed a week into the program, testing
positive for cocaine. Magistrate Judge Leo Sorokin (D. Mass.) sent him
to jail for a day and then to an in-patient treatment program.
The program was chosen specifically for Angel after two
treatment specialists, a probation officer, a prosecutor and his defense
attorney reviewed Angel’s case with Sorokin.
“It was quite remarkable. After that day, Angel had a
complete turnaround. He took responsibility for his own recovery; he
changed his life,” Sorokin said. “He never again tested positive, and he
attended all his treatment sessions, faithfully complied with his
supervision conditions, and appeared for all the many C.A.R.E. court
Despite the shaky start, Angel graduated C.A.R.E. 53 weeks
later—May 9, 2007—and now works in substance abuse outreach, training
to be a drug and alcohol counselor.
“For many of the offenders with substance abuse issues,
the traditional forms of supervision combined with treatment works. But
for 10 to 20 percent of those offenders, like Angel, the traditional
approaches have proved unsuccessful,” said Jonathan Hurtig, a
supervising U.S. probation officer in Boston.
“C.A.R.E. is our attempt to address the challenges of the
10 to 20 percent,” he said. “It’s our hope that effective supervision,
treatment and the group dynamic, combined with timely judicial
intervention, will increase the likelihood for success. The role played
by judges is an essential element.”
Timely and constant participation by judges is the key as
well to similar post-conviction programs with different names in the
Western District of Michigan and the District of Oregon. In each, judges
join with probation officers, federal defenders, and U.S. prosecutors
in efforts to improve high-risk offenders’ chances of success.
And the fruits of success? Offenders who complete each
program may be rewarded with up to a year’s reduction in their term of
The Western District of Michigan began its program in
Berrien County two years ago, targeting any offender who presents a high
risk of recidivism. Most have substance-abuse addictions.
The first year of the two-year program involves intensive
supervision, with each participant’s progress monitored at monthly court
hearings. For that year, each participant is required to attend drug or
alcohol counseling, seek or keep a job, and obey the law.
“It’s very gratifying to see participants meeting their
goals each month,” said Sharon Turek, an assistant federal public
defender in Grand Rapids. “They not only want to succeed, but perhaps
for the first time they believe that they can succeed.” The program was
extended to a second community earlier this year.
Chief Probation Officer Eric Suing believes the District
of Oregon’s program that began in 2005 “has greatly enhanced offender
accountability, resulting in the individual remaining drug free,
maintaining stable employment and residence, and making regular payments
He said up to 35 offenders in the program (the district
has about 1,000 people under supervised release at any given time) “make
a huge commitment—opening themselves to more testing, monthly court
appearances, and swift sanctions when needed from Judges James Redden
(D. Or.) in Portland and Ann Aiken (D. Or.) in Eugene.”
Suing praised the district’s Federal Public Defender’s
Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office for their roles in what he described
as a full partnership. “It’s the only way this program works,” he said.
In Massachusetts, Magistrate Judge Sorokin meets with each
program participant 26 times a year. Every Wednesday, Sorokin first
meets in his chambers with C.A.R.E. team members—a probation officer,
federal defender, prosecutor and two substance-abuse treatment
professionals. Discussions focus on what progress and problems each
offender has reported. Then it is time for a court hearing, with
offenders sitting in the jury box.
One by one, the offenders approach the bench to report to
Sorokin on their activities. Offenders meet with him once a week while
in the program’s first phase; twice a month in the second phase; then
every third week; and finally once a month.
“Those who have made progress are rewarded, with positive
encouragement or by promotion from one phase to the next, which means
fewer court appointments and less reporting to their probation officer,”
Sorokin said. “If they’ve failed to comply—tested positive for drugs or
failed either to attend treatment or to maintain employment—then a
sanction will be handed out. The most common sanction for a positive
drug test is a day or two in jail.”
“The goal is to help the participant lead a sober,
employed and law-abiding life. They earn their successes, and they earn
their consequences. The sanctions are smaller, but more timely, than for
defendants on regular supervision,” Sorokin said.
Officials are encouraged when they compare the performance
of program participants with similarly situated offenders who were used
as a control group for statistical analysis. “Program participants were
far more law abiding, far more employed, and had a longer period of
sobriety than the control group,” Hurtig said.
In what is believed to be a one-of-its-kind program, the
Central District of Illinois offers a relative few defendants with
substantiated drug-abuse problems a pretrial opportunity to turn their
lives around. “What we have is an alternative-to-detention program,”
said Darrell Hite, a probation officer in Peoria.
While awaiting trial, defendants who accept federal
prosecutors’ invitations to participate in the program meet every other
Thursday with Magistrate Judge John A. Gorman (C. D. Ill.), after the
judge has been briefed by Hite and team members from the U.S. Attorney’s
Office, a substance abuse counselor and defense counsel.
The program has no set duration, but most graduates
participated from 10 to 18 months. “Since its start in 2002, the program
has had 33 participants, and the results have been dramatic,” Hite
said. “Only one graduate of the program committed a new crime, and only
one other lapsed into drug use. We are changing people’s lives.”
Valerie Martin, chief probation officer in the District of
Western Michigan, said post-conviction and pretrial programs represent a
different strategy. “It would be foolish to expect a higher success
rate among the high-risk population without doing something different,”
“A significant aspect of the program is involvement of the
offender’s family, counselor, employer, and other community supports.
Through the program, offenders expand their support system that will
encourage law-abiding behavior long after a term of supervision has
ended,” she said.
“The road to abstinence and significant life change is
full of obstacles for offenders. It is hard enough to do it with
support; many have been trying, and failing, to do so without support.
This type of program provides a more realistic opportunity for success,”
Her district’s Chief Judge Robert Holmes Bell, added: “I’m
trying to be as encouraging as I can . . . to make this a success so
that not only can we replicate it but we can hopefully reincorporate
some of the resources we have in this direction and demonstrate to the
public that there is a real payback.”
Other districts are taking note. Melissa Cahill, a
probation officer in the Eastern District of Missouri, said her office
plans to seek the district judges’ approval of a pilot program this
fall. “Evidence-based programs—those programs that have proved
successful—are very appealing,” she said.
“It looks like the increased contact with a judge and a
team consisting of probation officers, prosecutors and defenders will
help an offender maintain sobriety and compliance with the conditions of