Using Reentry-Drug Court as a counterweight to long Prison Terms

THE BEST OF: The following article, published on Feb. 13,2012, uses a Watertown sentencing as an example of how drug court can be used to keep the prison population down, or increase it.

April 28, 2014

Screen shot 2012-11-19 at 9.19.12 AMSomething caught my eye as I was reading newsclips from around the nation. A small item from the Watertown Daily Times (NY). It read:

A Watertown man was sentenced to state prison Thursday after admitting in Jefferson County Court that he violated his Drug Court contract. Paul L. Arndt Jr., 44, was sentenced to 113 to 4 years in prison for violating terms of the substance abuse rehabilitation program that is designed to serve as an alternative to incarceration. He was referred to the program in April 2009 after admitting he violated probation. He was sentenced to five years’ probation in August 2007 after pleading guilty in May 2007 to fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property for taking radiators that had been stolen from a Watertown business and selling them at a Syracuse recycling center. Information about how he violated Drug Court was not available.

Putting aside the issue of whether the probation violation in question was a particularly serious or dangerous one, I would suggest that sending a drug court participant to prison for a substantial term is almost never good criminal justice policy, good use of government funds, or good rehabilitation &/or treatment strategies . There are more than a few drug courts, that quickly fail drug court participants and spirit them away for substantial prison terms. It may be time to revisit the rationality behind such scenarios. Unless the new offense is one involving violence or the threat of violence, is prison ever a sensible response to a drug court violation?

I have suggested in a recent article (see:”Front-loading court interventions”)  that “judges may use their jurisdiction to sentence the felon to prison as part of a court-ordered treatment program, with the understanding that the offender is to undergo treatment before being returned to court for re-sentencing”. The idea is an old one, first described in a monograph written in 1999 by myself and present NADCP CEO West Huddleston (see “Reentry Drug Courts”);  Front-loaded prison reentry programs (involving short custodial terms and a return to court supervision and treatment), are a last resort after the offender has committed serious and multiple violations of a drug court’s requirements.

Numerous states have developed drug court as an alternative sentence of last resort before substantial prison terms are ordered. Governors  such as Christy of New Jersey and Deal of Georgia are calling for special drug courts to give the offender a last chance to succeed. Reentry-Drug Courts, (or simply Reentry courts) need to be put in place for the high-risk offender, where a short prison or other custodial sentence is a last resort (typically one to six months), before a long prison term is ordered.

Remember, the best way to reduce prison recidivism is not to put an offender into prison in the first place. But if there is no viable alternative to prison, use it in a rational and graduated manner, with a brief stay that holds out the promise of rehabilitation and an early return to the community.


Reentry Court Myths and Realities

IMG_0999April 14, 2014

Sometimes you need to break away from writing drug court history and blow some Island Jazz. This article was written in 2011 and has received its share of compliments. In case you missed it the first time, here it is again, MYTHS AND REALITIES OF REENTRY COURTS

MYTH #1: There’s not much interest nationally in federal funding for Reentry Courts

Local jurisdictions often have neither the jurisdiction nor the resources to deal with parolees, a traditional state responsibility. However a growing number of states are actively developing state wide, locally run, reentry court systems, as they realize the value of these community-based courts. (IN, OH, MO, TX, and CA have taken the lead in developing state-wide systems). The DOJ can provide resources, information and educational opportunities to assist interested states.

MYTH #2: Reentry Court is just like Drug Court with a different population.

Reentry Court turns out to be a very different animal than Drug Court. Its population is made up of high-risk offenders, who have been institutionalized for substantial periods of time. The most significant realization I’ve made as San Francisco’s Reentry Court Judge, is that parolees require far more services, incentives, and flexibility than traditional Drug Courts; that creating a community among court staff and participants is critical to parolees who have lost most sense of belonging. (over the initial 12 weekly sessions, participants failed to appear for court 1% of time)

MYTH #3: Reentry Courts detect violations, responding with sanctions and return to prison

The purpose of the Reentry Court is to keep the offender from reoffending and returning to prison. We are only peripherally engaged in the creation of model citizens. A heavy-handed approach to technical violations and minor offenses (including drug abuse) does not work well with this population. Encouragement from the bench, incentives, and the creation of court-based communities provide a far more effective approach. This still requires the active engagement of the parolee in community-based activities (job training, education, volunteer service, substance abuse and cognitive behavioral treatments) from the day they enter the reentry court. Professor Ed Latessa of the University of Cincinatti, (Dean of reentry research), warns that parolees need to be engaged in structured activity for 40 to 70% of their day, and that those programs that address 4 or more of the criminogenic needs of the offender do twice as well as those that don’t.

MYTH #4: Reentry Court success means substantially reducing drug abuse among parolees.

If we successfully deal with a criminal’s substance abuse problem, we may end up with a clean and sober criminal. Research suggests that less than 50% of parolees have a substantial drug abuse problem, so dealing with substance abuse as the main focus of Reentry Court may be  a mistake. According to the research, drug abuse is not in the first tier of criminogenic needs for the high-risk offender. Dealing with Criminal Attitudes, Criminal Personality, Criminal Friends and Associates, and Family and Parenting issues are generally considered the most important treatment needs. Unfortunately, the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, that have proved to be most successful in treating these issues, is lacking across much of the nation.

Reauthorized Second Chance Act will include Reentry Courts

November 18, 2013
Picture 3Reentry Courts which appeared to have been written out of the reauthorized “Second Chance Act”, received a reprieve when language that included reentry courts as possible grantees of Second Chance Grant funds was inserted into the Reauthorization  Act. (see below)……………………………………………………………………………..
[An issue worth pondering: while reentry courts may be funded under the reauthorized Act, previous references to the court as a necessary partner and participant in grants applications, has to my knowledge, disappeared from grant guidelines. In fact, while the inclusion of reentry drug courts as possible recipients of Second Chance Act grant awards is clearly a positive, the inclusion of the courts as necessary partners in the application and implementation of all grants would be a much more appropriate and important inclusion]………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
From the Amended legislative language: “In this section, the term reentry court means a program that—(1) monitors juvenile and adult eligible offenders reentering the community; (2) provides continual judicial supervision; (3) provides juvenile and adult eligible offenders reentering the community with coordinated and comprehensive reentry services and programs, such as—(A) drug and alcohol testing and assessment for treatment;( B) assessment for substance abuse from a substance abuse professional who is approved by the State or Indian tribe and licensed by the appropriate entity to provide alcohol and drug addiction treatment, as appropriate; ( C) substance abuse treatment from a provider that is approved by the State or Indian tribe, and licensed, if necessary, to provide medical and other health services;(D) health (including mental health) services and assessment; (E) aftercare and case management services that—(i) facilitate access to clinical care and related health services; and (ii) coordinate with such clinical care and related health services; and (F) any other services needed for reentry; (4) convenes community impact panels, victim impact panels, or victim impact educational classes;(5) provides and coordinates the delivery of community services to juvenile and adult eligible offenders, including—(A) housing assistance; (B) education; © job training; (D) conflict resolution skills training;(E) batterer intervention programs; and (F) other appropriate social services; and (6) establishes and implements graduated sanctions and incentives.”



Harlem Reentry Court Toolkit

Sept.16, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 12.47.43 PM“The Harlem Reentry Court Toolkit” is an excellent document, describing in detail the structure, principles, and procedures of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court. It also provides excellent  appendices, including program templates, check lists, participant questionaires and other documents that will  be helpful to those starting a reentry court or simply interested in understanding how the Harlem program works.

The Harlem Reentry Court Toolkit”,  is authored by Debbie Boar and Chris Watler, administrators of the Harlem Community Reentry Task Force and the Harlem Parole Reentry Court, respectively, It is published by the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), and funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. [  please click on the image to the left for a PDF: the Harlem Reentry Court Toolkit]


NIJ Impact Evaluation on Reentry Courts due soon

Sept. 16,2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 10.31.38 AMJust a reminder: A National Institute of Justice preliminary evaluation of eight reentry courts was published in March of 2013.  It provided an excellent description of the structures and processes developed by the participating jurisdictions and does and excellent job ib comparing their major program characteristics (see article: One Year Process Evaluations of 8 Reentry Courts). Entitled “The National Institute of Justice’s Evaluation of Second Chance Act Adult Reentry Courts: Program Characteristics and Preliminary Themes from Year 1″, can be found in full, by clicking on the image to the left of this text. The evalaution waa the product of RTI International, the Center for Court Inovation, and NPC Research. It’s authors are Christine Lindquist, Jennifer Hardison Walters Michael Rempel, and Shannon M. Carey.

We can expect an initial impact evaluation, focusing in the effectiveness of the eight  reentry courts at reducing recidivism and improving other reentry outcomes early in 2014.


Santa Clara Realignment: A Collaborative Court Model


The Santa Clara Realignment Model: This model builds on a comprehensive collaborative court system, well established in Santa Clara County over the past fifteen years.  It probably is closer to an evidence-based “Court-involved Realignment Model” than any other in California. Conceptually, the Model attempts to use the reentry court to separate the high risk offenders (many with histories of violence),  from the felons who pose little threat to the community.[click on image on the left for the 2011 Santa Clara County Public Safety Realignment implementation Plan]

Under the leadership of Judge Stephen Manley, Santa Clara County has  been able to expand and provide coverage beyond drug offenders to veterans,  the mentally ill, parolees and other criminal justice populations, working with over 2000 offenders a year. It was natural for  Santa Clara County’s Probation Department to work closely with the county’s Collaborative Court System to assist both supervision and rehabilitation of AB109 Realignment participants:

1. Offenders sentenced as felons under 1170H, (known as triple nons; non-violent, non-serious, non sex-ofenders) are assessed early in the process,  so that twelve sentencing judges can determine high risk offenders who need the special attention  of the reentry court.

2.Probation often refers parole violators (triple nons released from prison on Post Release Community Supervision; PRCS)  to the Parole Reentry Court for closer supervision and rehabilitation, even before filing a petition to revoke.  Using a retired treatment judge as the AB109  Revocation Hearing Officer, the Court retains PRCS offenders for special attention, while referring others to the Parole Reentry Court or other alternative to jail (if not to jail itself).

3. Finally, parolees supervised by parole officers, are turned over to the Parole Board for revocation hearings and sanctions (to be taken over by the Realignment Revocation Officer come July 2013). Parole currently sends a significant number of high risk parolees to the Parole Reentry Court  for supervision and rehabilitation services.

There are over 200 AB109 participants among the three categories of AB109  offenders presently being supervised by a reentry court (with some estimating the number to double over the next year).

The 2012 Santa Clara County Realignment Implementation Plan is expected to be submitted to the Board of Supervisors shortly.

[published in October, 2012]





San Joaquin County: A Hybrid Realignment Model

The San Joaqun Realignment Model: The Probation Department takes the lead in assessing, reporting, monitoring, supervising, and rehabilitating offenders. A probation based system where the court plays a key supporting role. The court  reduces its footprint, by dealing mostly with those cases and individuals where it will have the most impact, only directly involved when the offender has committed a substantial supervision violation [click on image on left for 2012 Report]

 California’s Realignment Mandate (under AB109)  is to move prisoners and prison offenses from state institiutions to county supervision. The Head Probation Officeer of the County, is by statute, Chair of the Communtiy Corrections Partnership, responsible for setting up a countywide AB109 sentencing system.

The courts are free to follow their traditional role of sentencing offenders to prison (even though most will serve their terms in county facilities) and dealing with revocations when they arise. By my reckoning the  majoirty of counties are following that conventional approach (resulting in widespread expansion of jail facilities across the state).  At the other end of the spectrum are counties who are creating comprehensive court-based sentencing systems, that to the extent possible, are involved with the offender from the time of plea through sentencing and community supervision ( Santa Clara County, works with over 2,000 participate in its Comprehensive Collaborative Court System).

Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, between the conventional hands off approach and the comprehensive court-involved system, is San Joaquin County.  San Joaquin County is in dire financial circumstances, with a population of approx.700,000 (400,000 in the city of Stockton alone) with a serious drug and gang problem. It doesn’t have the financial resources that would allow it to develop a more Comprehensive Court Sentencing System.

Instead San Joaquin county is creating a hybrid sentencing system, that combines the more traditional sentencing/probation model,with intensive court-based interventions when its community corrections system requires it. The conceptual heart of the San Joaquin model is that the court is there to assist, motivate, and serve the community-wide reentry process, not to drive the process.

Under the leadership of newly appointed Probation Chief Stephanie James, the Communtiy Corrections Partnership has taken the  lead in creating a framework for the sentencing system. A county- wide probation-based plan was approved by the County Board of supervisors on Sept.25, 2012. [click here: San Joaquin County Public Safety Realignment Plan]

The Court already has a substantial and successful collaborative court presence, with at least five existing collaborative courts (Parole Reentry Court, Drug Court II/Proposition 36, DUI Drug Court, Dependency Drug Court, among others).  While the court could be involved earlier and more intensively (as with its drug courts), it instead limits its reentry interventions to those cases and individuals where it will have the most impact.

The court receives pre-plea assesssments and sentencing reports from Probation, but in most cases does not become directly involved in the offender’s supervision, until their is a substantial violation. Along with an existing Parole Reentry Court (for parolees with parole violations), a Post-Release Supervision Court  (Compliance Court) is planned for  those felons who have serious drug problems that result in supervision violations, as well as, a Violent Offender Reentry Court for those high-risk violent offenders who have violated their Supervision. This Hybrid Realignment Model is an alternative to a comprehensive Court-Based Sentencing System [see: "A Model Court-Based Sentencing System"].

[published; October, 2012]

San Francisco Realignment : A Well Resourced Traditional Model

The San Francisco Model: San Francisco has adopted a model that places almost all the responsibility for AB109 realignment participants on social services, criminal justice, and community agencies. The courts have almost no role in this model, except for the court’s tradition adjudicatory role of sentencing offenders and hearing revocation petitions.The City & County of San Francisco Public Safety Realignment & Post-Release Community Supervision 2012 Implementation Plan was passed on June 1, 2012. [click on image on the right , for a copy of the plan]

The San Francisco Model is one that clearly takes a community based approach to felon rehabilitation, with the city and county of San Francisco providing special resources to deal with the offender. San Francisco has a large, highly experienced and educated cadre of intervention specialists, both in the community, as well as in social service, public health and criminal justice agencies. They are using the court in a strictly traditional fashion, solely in its adjudicatory role. (Interestingly, as of March 30, approximately 2/3 of felons sentenced for new offenses under 1170H of the Realignment Statute, were sentenced to jail, without community supervision)

Probation has taken the lead in developing the Implementation plan, as is required by statute, with Chief Probation Officer Wendy Still chairing the Community Corrections Partnership. Prisoners returning to the community under Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS) are pre-assessed at their prison facility approximately two months before returning to San Francisco. Once released under PRCS, offenders are screened at Probation’s new Community Assessment and Social Services Center, a one stop hub, where participants have their housing, drug and alcohol treatment, health, psychological, job, education, and other needs assessed and allocated. Probation has also  created a special team to provide supervision and case management to the participants.

The Sheriff’s Department  has the resources to assess and provide additional services to AB109 felons in custody.  A special Realignment Pod is being prepared for participating felons.There are plans for prisoners to be returned to the jail two months before their prison term ends, for a pre-release process to prepare the felon for release into the community..Similarly both the Public Defender and District Attorney’s Offices  have resources to work with this special population. Finally San Francisco has a wealth of non-profit and other community organizations that are enthusiastic about assisting the reintegration of this new population into the community.

The San Francisco Realignment Plan is a traditional realignment plan in regards to the role of the court, relying on the community itself and relevant government agencies to successfully rehabilitate those placed in jail as felons under 1170H,  or those returned to the community under PRCS. What makes this plan noteworthy, is the commitment of the community and the resources available to accomplish their mission.

[published; October. 2012]


An Overview of a Court-Based Sentencing System

THE BEST OF:The Following Article , published on September 3, 2012, describes how a systemic sentencing model based on evidence-based principles might be structured   

 Find below a diagram and descriptive analysis of an Evidence-Based Sentencing System.

A 12 Part Series on Sentencing Systems, can be found under “SENTENCING SYSTEMS” (or by clicking on the diagram below)



The diagram above can be thought of having two separate phases. The first (from “Plea” arrow to “Custody” arrow) focuses in on the need to effectively categorize, sentence, and track offenders, with a minimum of staff and resources. Tracks are essential to the system as the court will sentence and monitor offenders with very different risks and needs. A sentencing team with a different skill set is required to deal with low risk and diversion participants than with high risk and violent offenders (as a different team skill set would be required for Drug Court as opposed to Domestic Violence Court).

We know from the scientific literature that mixing low and high-risk offenders is counter-productive at best. That same dynamic works in the courtroom. Where possible, it’s best to keep participants with different risk levels apart. It’s also more cost-effective. Why have full staff at every session when you can substantially reduce the number of staff by sorting offenders by risk and need. When you create a participant track with few housing, job, or family issues, experienced staff in those areas can best use their time elsewhere. The savings would be substantial if case managers are designated to be in court once a week for a single track, rather than required to attend daily sessions

The second part of the diagram (from “Front End Jurisdiction” through Front End Reentry Court”) focuses on the potential for an “Early Intervention”. We focus on the front end because almost all states give their courts a window to recall the felon from prison within a relatively short time period  (typically 4 to 12 months).  Where courts are willing to use their statutory authority, serious and/or high-risk offenders can complete a rehabilitation program over a short jail or prison term and avoid a long prison sentence. The opposite is true for felons sentenced to long prison terms (or even medium terms of 1 to 3 years). In most states, there is relatively little opportunity for a court to exercise authority over the “Back End”, as the felon, typically returns to the community under state supervision.

Decision Making in a Sentencing System

Offender Tracks are normally the province of Probation or other supervisory agencies. When used at all, they reflect internal decisions in determining the level of supervision and treatment appropriate for a probationer.  With validated Risk/Needs Assessments available, the final decision as to court related tracks ought to be left to the court, based upon the recommendations of the full sentencing team.

Court tracking is essential to keep offenders with similar risk and needs together, maximizing the opportunities for building positive relationships with the court and participants and limiting the negative consequences of mixing offenders with different risk levels.  The court will need to schedule tracks when required staffing and resource personnel are present. Optimally, the only personnel present at all sessions will be the judge, clerk, and court manager. Review below the process and procedures:

a. A risk assessment is completed even before sentencing and optimally before a plea is taken so all parties will have an understanding of the sentencing issues early on. (Ideally, the level of treatment/rehabilitation or appropriate track designation should not be the subject of a plea agreement).

b. An individual may be given the opportunity to accept pre-plea Diversion (often called District Attorney’s Diversion). Once a complaint is filed, the court has substantial control over pre-plea and post-plea felony Diversion, as well as pre and post-plea Problem-Solving Courts. A Diversion or Problem Solving Court judge typically takes a plea, sentences the offender, monitors the offender over the course of the program (including in-custody progress), and presides over their graduation from the program.

c. The lead judge (or a designee) takes the plea in most other felony cases, reviewing the risk/needs assessment already completed, and sentences the felon either to probation or prison (if the offense is violent or the offender a danger to the community). If the offender is appropriate for probation , the sentencing judge will decide whether the felon should be placed in a low, medium or high risk supervision track. Depending on the number of offenders and resources available, there could be sub-tracks within each risk category (when offender’s needs differ substantially in criminogenic attitudes and beliefs, gender concerns, drugs or alcohol problems, mental health issues, housing, job and/or education needs, and family/ parental issues)

1. Low risk offenders; Probation (banked file): Where the offender is neither a risk to society or has special needs, the court might see the offender once, shortly after probation placement, focusing the offender’s attention on probation compliance, and only see the felon again, if there is a substantial change of circumstances (note: Diversion contacts are often as minimal).

2. Medium risk offender, Probation (straight community corrections); Where the offender has a medium risk of re-offending and has special criminogenic needs, the felon would be placed in a track on a regular court schedule. Compliance in this track would require completion of cognitive behavioral and other rehabilitation services, with compliance resulting in substantial incentives and rewards. Compliance will allow the court to back off from contacts with probationers (unless changed circumstances or graduation)

3. High Risk offender, Probation (often a substantial jail term); Intensive supervision requirements might include attending court sessions on a weekly basis (remaining in court until all participants have been seen), a minimum of twice weekly contacts with a case manager, intensive cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, and pro-social activities for at least 40 hours per week (for at least 90 days)

Reducing Prison terms through Front-End Sentencing

 The second half of the diagram represents the use of alternatives to prison terms, allowing us to use an evidence-based sentencing system as a means to keep serious (but non-violent) offenders from serving long prison terms.

The front-end of a prison sentence provides the only substantial opportunity a court has to effect a prison term, once a felon is sentenced. Few courts use that statutory authority to return the felon from prison. When used at all, the authority is often applied in by individual judges in a non-systemic fashion.

“Front-End Systemic Approaches” to long prison terms described here present an opportunity to use graduated sanctions rather than immediate prison sentences for serious, but not-violent offenses. Such Front-End Systems can be structured in different ways. Some courts may include non-prison sentences (typically county jail or community corrections programs) as part of an “alternatives to prison” system.

Systemic approaches to “Front-End Alternatives to Prison” might start with a Community Corrections level alternative sentence. With new offenses and/or serious violations of probation, they might move up to a county jail alternative, and finally to a short-term prison sentence in lieu of a long-term prison sentence. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, an offender might start a  ”Front-End” Intervention at any of the three levels.

A.  Community Corrections Sentence in lieu of Prison: Less often used than other alternatives, this community based alternative to prison (typically residential treatment or correctional housing while an offender receives education, job training or employment), allows the judge to closely follow the offenders participation in a community based program, providing incentives or sanctions as appropriate. With successful program completion, the participant is returned to the community to continue supervision and rehabilitation under court authority. [Note: this alternative can be the first of two used before the offender is ordered to serve any prison sentence]

B. County Jail Alternative: This second tier “Front End Prison Alternative” can better emphasize the risk that the felon has of being sent to prison. Like the “Community Corrections Alternative, the County Jail Alternative allows close monitoring by the sentencing judge, appropriate incentives and sanctions, and a return to the community for further court supervision.

C. Front-End Prison Term: This ought to be thought of as a felon’s last opportunity to avoid a long prison term. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, some jurisdictions will start the Front-End Sentencing process with a prison term (skipping over possible Community Corrections and County Jail level interventions), hopefully reducing a long term sentence to a relatively brief 4 to 12 months in prison, and returning the felon to the community to complete the sentence under court supervision.

Professor Scores NADCP as “CHAMPION” in its Field

THE BEST OF: The following article, published on February 5,2012, describes a newly published book, “How Information Matters”,  by Professor Kathleen Hale of Auburn University and published by Georgetown University Press in 2011,  which singles out NADCP as the best among non-profit organizations in Washington D.C.

Professor Hale’s analysis describes  NADCP as the “Champion” Non-Profit Organization in its field. What does it have to do with reentry courts and court-based reentry systems. The answer is that it does and it doesn’t.

It describes the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) as the best among extraordinary organizations; whose structure, initiatives, strategies, and planning define excellence in the non-profit world. And I cannot agree more. I was there at the beginning of drug courts, as a drug court judge, and am still laboring in the fields, working to fulfill a vision that began for me, as first chair and then founding president of NADCP.  In the beginning, we created the “Ten Key Components” and Drug Court Mentor Sites, and planned NADCP’s projects, initiatives and strategies; so I know that  my fellow drug court pioneers feel as proud as I am of our accomplishments.

And those who came after us have truly done a superb job, in expanding drug courts and its progeny, problem-solving courts across the nation and around the world. They have built amazing public support for our “Champion” that has translated into much needed funding, and created wonderful new programs such as Veteran’s Courts, which thankfully are there to assist our Veterans in their time of need.

For me, it’s difficult to accept that my quest, the establishment of court-based reentry systems, that can staunch the flow of lives into our prisons, and salvage those that return broken, remains out of reach. I for one, salute all who have worked on our great labor of love, NADCP. But I long for this book’s sequel, the one that shows how we captured the holly grail of criminal justice, and achieved true prison reform through a partnership of the three C’s; Community, Corrections, and the Courts.