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December 2009

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


Study Requested on Reentry Court Programs

With an eye toward providing the best possible supervision of offenders and maximizing the use of limited resources, the federal Judiciary will begin a study of the various federal reentry court programs nationwide.

Based on “problem-solving courts” or “drug courts,” reentry court programs address offender behavior and rehabilitation by providing treatment and sanction alternatives, combined with regular judicial oversight, for offenders under federal supervision. Currently 30 districts have some type of reentry program. Twenty-one districts are considering beginning either reentry or problem-solving court programs.

The Judicial Conference Committee on Criminal Law, with the endorsement of the Judicial Conference, has requested that the Federal Judicial Center conduct a study that will assess the programs’ operational aspects, outcomes, and cost-effectiveness.

“We are pleased that so many district judges are interested in reentry efforts,” said Chief Judge Julie E. Carnes (N.D. Ga.), chair of the Criminal Law Committee. “However, the informal way in which drug and reentry programs are being created is a concern. We need to know which techniques and what programs will produce the most positive results for offenders. An assessment is necessary. It is our hope that such a study will reveal approaches that work, so that these techniques can be shared with other courts and so that current and future resource implications can be identified.”

Current reentry court programs typically include 10-25 offender participants. The operation of these programs, however, varies considerably, largely because no national guidelines have been established at the federal level and, to date, no large-scale and methodical evaluations have been conducted. Some programs target offenders with a high risk of recidivism; others do not. In some districts, the reentry court program is optional; in others, it is mandatory. Some judges may see offenders from time to time in informal conferences, while others may preside over formal hearings on a monthly basis. There are nearly as many permutations of reentry court programs as there are courts with programs.

There is currently a great deal of anecdotal information on the benefits of certain techniques and approaches in existing reentry programs, but a systematic study would identify the hallmarks of successful programs, determine if they are cost-effective, and identify which configurations will work best with a federal supervision population of more than 170,000 offenders a year. The end result may be a national model for federal courts.

Resources are also an issue.

“The federal Judiciary has very limited resources in our probation offices and district courts,” said Judge Julia S. Gibbons, (6th Cir.), chair of the Judicial Conference Budget Committee. “And reentry courts are very people- and resource-intensive. If we are to be good stewards of our resources, some cost-benefit assessment of practices would be prudent.”

Although many state courts have established a track record on reentry court programs, having maintained programs for a number of years, wholesale adoption of state practices might not be practical for federal courts. For instance, in state courts, presentence participation in a drug court program might lead to a reduction or even waiver of sentence, but federal courts typically operate reentry programs after a period of incarceration has been served and the offender is on supervised release. The same incentives aren’t there for federal offenders.

Both the state and federal systems, however, share at least one commonality when it comes to evaluating new initiatives: evidence-based practices (EBPs). Federal probation programs, including several reentry court programs, make strategic use of EBP as a part of federal supervision, including workforce development, cognitive-behavioral therapy and moral reconation techniques, motivational interviewing, and matrix substance abuse treatment. These supervision practices have been demonstrated to help federal offenders become law-abiding and productive members of society.

Judge Keith Starrett was a state court judge when he began his first drug court in Mississippi in the late 1990s and his involvement in the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP). Shortly after joining the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in 2005, he started a reentry court program using components developed by the NADCP. An enthusiastic proponent, he offers a word of caution: “Evidence-based practices and reentry programs go hand in glove,” said Starrett. “I’m concerned that programs that don’t follow EBP standards, don’t work, and give us all a bad name.”

In the Western District of Michigan, Judge Robert Holmes Bell’s reentry court program employs many evidence-based practices, including interactive journals that use cognitive behavioral therapy methods to address the needs of offenders.

Magistrate Judge Leo Sorokin in the District of Massachusetts began the Court Assisted Recovery Effort (CARE) program in his district in 2006 to target offenders with serious substance abuse problems, many of whom were repeat violators. “The CARE program aims to more effectively deploy resources to obtain better results by blending treatment with accountability enforced by the criminal justice system,” said Sorokin. “The court’s goal is to release offenders back into the community who are sober, employed, and law-abiding citizens.” The Massachusetts program makes use of current research into EBPs from the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Drug Abuse. When the program began, trainers from the NADCP trained Sorokin and the probation officers, prosecutors, public defenders, and treatment specialists involved in the program.

Every Wednesday, Sorokin meets with the CARE team to review offender progress. Immediately after, he talks to offenders in the CARE program from the bench. “Sometimes I deliver encouragement, sometimes it’s sanctions,” said Sorokin. “The close oversight, swift and certain sanctions, even for missing a single treatment session, blended with treatment and encouragement, aim to change the revolving door of release, relapse, and revocation.” Graduates of the program earn one year off of the supervised release term. After two years of CARE, Sorokin reports a 42 percent graduation rate, compared to approximately 26 percent for similarly situated offenders under regular supervision. The most recent year’s numbers are under review by researchers at Northeastern University.

The goal of reentry or problem-solving court programs­—to reduce recidivism—would seem to be in sync with the goal of the Criminal Law Committee.

“Our goal,” said Carnes, “is to identify those techniques that produce the most positive results among offenders reentering the community. We are interested in any technique that could be useful.”

Carnes, however, is aware of the potential pitfalls that may come from embracing the untested and she is willing to take the time to study different practices.

“We do not intend to roll out, nationwide, any model practices until we feel comfortable that these practices have value and will work,” she said. “We are aware that, in the past, this or that approach has been touted as the proverbial silver bullet to solve the problem of recidivism, only to fail in a very public fashion. We do not want that outcome.”