Policy Paper No.3: Prison Based Reentry Courts

The prisoner reentry system in the U.S. is broken. Prisoners are coming home in greater numbers than ever before—and with prison overcrowding, often sooner than later. Supervision and rehabilitation, historically the province of the executive branch of state government is largely ineffective. The Pew Charitable Trust reports, 600,000 prisoners will be released this year, with sixty percent rearrested and half returned to prison within three years.


For the most part, state courts have minimal jurisdiction over the felon once sentenced to prison.

Research shows high-risk drug-involved offenders (which make up eighty percent of those returning from prison) do better in judge driven rehabilitation programs, such as reentry/drug court systems, than state parole agency programs or any other reintegration strategy yet devised.

Recently all fifty state chief justices concluded, “drug court and problem-solving court principles and methods have demonstrated great success in addressing certain social problems, such as recidivism, that are not effectively addressed by the traditional legal process.” (See Policy Paper No.1: Unanimous Endorsement By State Chief Justices and Administrators).


In his book But they all came back: “Facing the challenge of prison reentry, Jeremy Travis, President of the John Jay School of Justice and formerly Director of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of justice Statistics, had this to say about prison-based reentry court:

“Reentry Courts offer numerous advantages over our current system of reentry supervision.  Judges command the public’s confidence and, by contrast, our parole system is held in low public esteem.  Judge’ carry out their business in open courtrooms, not closed offices, so the public, former prisoners, family members, and others can benefit from the open articulation of reasons for the government’s decisions.  Judges have been trained in the law, with experience in applying legal standards to facts about making tough decisions after weighing advocates’ competing proposals…However, the most compelling reason for moving toward a universal system of reentry courts is these court’s ability to promote reintegration.” [Emphasis added]

Whether prison or jail-based (see Policy Paper No.2), a unified reentry/drug court system creates a focus for city and region wide efforts to coordinate a wide range of reintegration strategies: rehabilitation and treatment, education and mental health, job training and placement, housing and health, as well as regular monitoring through police, parole, and probation. The courts stand in a unique position; in effect, at the center of a circle of interveners, where service agencies and community organization can interact.  Participating organization are used to working closely with or under the supervision of the courts.  In fact, the court is often the only place that some agencies such as police and treatment ever have significant contact. Agencies traditionally unfriendly or even hostile to one another, work cooperatively under the court’s leadership.


A number of states such as Missouri, Texas, Indiana, Delaware, and Nevada have allowed reentry/drug courts to regain jurisdiction over high-risk drug offenders sent to prison, once they return to their communities for rehabilitation, reintegration and supervision services.

Judge driven courts provide the leadership, focus, and motivation to make reentry programs successful. The most common judge driven model relies upon “split sentencing” jurisdiction to create a seamless supervision and rehabilitation process. A felon (drug-involved or otherwise) is sentenced to prison, to be returned to the court for a probationary period following prison, under the jurisdiction of the reentry court judge and team. Alternative reentry court models typically involve the use of state agency administrative law judges or collaborations between parole or other executive agencies and the local court.  While a promising solution and much better than ordinary parole, these alternative models often lack the judicial independence and leadership as well as local community involvement and collaboration inherent in a judge based reentry court.

Just Because it’s called REHABILITATION doesn’t mean It works

It’s important to remember that just because a reintegration program or process is labeled rehabilitative or treatment based does not mean it will be effective. Dr. Doug Marlowe notes in his critique of Project Greenlight, a well resourced multi-modal, non-court based reentry effort in New York City, “Most offenders are characteristically irresponsible and have considerable difficulty satisfying basic obligations… It appears probable that without the leverage of sanctions, the in custody or reentering offender is apt to disregard rehabilitation programs and opt for doing as little as possible.” Meaning, it doesn’t matter how good the rehabilitation program is, if the participant is absent or lacks motivation (Note: Project Greenlight is defunct). Judge driven reentry courts offer both the substantial incentives and sanctions that motivate the offender to successfully engage in the reintegration process and remain drug and crime free.


The preceding policy papers have been an attempt to focus on community-based reentry court as an alternative to prison and parole.  However, the problem of our overdependence on prison is a larger issue. What is needed is a macro/systems analysis that begins with the issue of reentry and extends into the more serious issue of how our society deals with the serious criminal offender.


State agencies that have had historic authority to monitor returning felons are reluctant to share that jurisdiction, authority and its attendant resources. Nor do most state courts have the resources, structure, or interest to discharge such responsibilities. It will take national leadership and powerful incentives to promote community based reentry/drug court systems.

1. Resources must be provided to encourage states to establish judge driven reentry courts.

2. States must develop “split sentencing” authority that allows judge driven reentry courts.

3. States must be encouraged to return prison funding to communities with reentry courts.

November 1, 2008

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