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July 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


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 appearances.”

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 supervised release.

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 on restitution.”

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,” she said.

“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,” Martin said.

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 supervision.”