If there is one principle generally accepted in prisoner reentry reform, it is that collaboration between criminal justice partners is critical. Certainly, that has ben the finding of researchers evaluating the importance of collaboration in drug courts as well as other problem-solving courts. The research suggest that we leave stakeholders out at our peril.
A recent Harvard Law School article, (“Designing a Prisoner Reentry System; Hardwired to Manage Disputes”,123 Harv. L. Rev. 1339 (2010) makes this very point, in advocating for “Reentry Court” as the better way of dealing with returning prisoners. The truth is that the Courts may be at the table as reforms are designed, but they are largely absent as collaborators in reentry reform itself.
It is suggested by some, that the courts don’t belong in the reentry reform structure; that prisoner reentry is an executive function and not a judicial one, that the courts have little or no jurisdiction or statutory authority to be part of the process, and more pointedly, that involvement of the courts would violate the constitutional separation of powers doctrine. On more practical grounds, they argue that courts are too expensive, involving too many stakeholders, resources, and personnel. Finally, it is argued that there is no need for the courts, as the needed reforms are already being implemented, by the required partners: Corrections and the larger Community (with its many resources and institutions, including religious and non-profit organizations).
Somehow, those arguments are less than compelling, when considered against the reality of prison recidivism. Corrections have been a disappointment in their attempts to rehabilitate the returning prisoner. According to that same Harvard Law Review article quoted above, “Approximately six out of ten prisoners released from prison this year will be rearrested within two years ”. Even where Community has been included as a partner (with all its resources), there is little reason to expect substantially better results. The federally funded SVORI project (Serious & Violent Offender Reentry Initiative) was the largest demonstration project of its kind, distributing over $100 million in grants, to 16 sites in 14 states nation-wide, providing comprehensive, coordinated services to prisoners, both pre- and post-release. Evaluation results after the two year demonstration period (2004-2006) are generally characterized as having little impact, showing minor improvement in re-arrest rates, but higher re-incarceration rates.
Given the weakness of existing prison reentry reform models, there is a great deal to gain by bringing the courts into the evolving collaboration between Corrections and Community. Drug Courts and other Problem-Solving Court have already proven the effectiveness of judicial involvement in collaborative criminal justice systems. Shouldn’t the courts be part of one of the most critical reforms in the history of the criminal justice system — the return of the prisoner to their community? It’s time to bring the third “C” – Courts – to Prison Reentry Reform.