Minimalist Reentry Courts For Recessionary Times

THE BEST OF: The following article, initially updated on March 21, 2009, is the first article I am aware of that described the danger of over-resourcing reentry courts.

MARCH TWENTY-ONE UPDATE:

Over the past four weeks I have interviewed practitioners from four successful reentry courts, and showcased them as model reentry courts on this website: the Harlem Parole Reentry Court(NY), the Boone County Reentry Court(MO), the Richland Reentry Court(OH), and the Fort Wayne Reentry Court(IN).  All displayed what i have described as quasi-minimalist reentry court features (see below), that are non-adversarial and rehabilitation focused, without attorneys on the reentry court team or in reentry court itself; with counsel provided, only when the parole participant has left the reentry court program, and returned to the formal adjudicatory system, whether parole or court based.  From my discussions with reentry court practitioners from across the country, I believe  that the majority of reentry courts can be described similarly.

A number of jurisdictions  that are interested in creating a “parolee reentry court”,  find themselves in a difficult dilemma. Either reject the reentry court concept because of   inadequate funding, or go ahead and build it, but pare back the conventional problem-solving court model to its bare essentials. It’s clear to me that a comprehensive reentry courts, (with full staffing), capable of working with and consolidating an offender’s state and county matters in a single court, is the best possible  solution. But if the necessary funding isn’t avaialble, there is a case to be made for a “minimalist parolee reentry court”, that can reduce court costs, by successfully and lawfully doing  without attorneys, reporters, and clerks. Such a “minimalist reentry court”, may mean substantial savings to the court and community, as well as a smaller, more successful, and sustainable reentry court. [Note: a model "minimalist parolee reentry court" team might include judge, program coordinator, treatment specialist, parole officer, and bailiff]

As a consultant, I’ve sat through many team staffings, and  ”progress hearings” over the years, with more than a dozen team members present.  I often wondered how cost effective or sustainable such  court structures would be in the long run. The answer  has become clear, as hard times  shape  the structures of today’s reentry and other problem-solving courts. Many problem solving courts are closing down, while others severely cut back on participation or services. Interestingly, some of our most successful early drug courts had as few as two team members present at pre-court staffings. The smaller, more intimate courtroom environment, encouraged clear, direct, and personal communication, as well as, increased team involvement and participant engagement; established problem-solving concepts that often lead to better outcomes.

The key hurdle in creating a  hybrid “parole reentry court” with fewer personnel, is the very fact that it’s unconventional. But a Parole Reentry Court, by its very nature is  a minimalist court. Proceedings related to parolees, while evidentiary in nature, are informal, do not involve county jurisdiction (which would require counsel), nor demand the same panoply of procedural and due process rights as a conventional court  (see: Morrisey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471 1972, Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 1973). Truth is that there are less than a dozen states that require counsel at “parole revocation hearings”. Clerks and Reporters are not required either, as a written decision setting forth the facts and reasoning upon which it is based, are typically written up by the hearing officer. (Note: the fewer personnel engaged in the legal process, the more resources available for direct services for the returning parolee)

The clear purpose of the minimalist Reentry Court  is to provide an informal and therapeutic enviroment, where the focus is on the rehabilitation and reintegration of the returning parolee in  the community. Some may be uncomfortable with the idea of an informal problem-solving court without counsel present.  But participation in informal courts is typically voluntary, with “parole revocation hearings” passed on to  parole authorities, once the participant has been terminated from the reentry court program.  California has recently  set up  a pilot “Parolee Reentry Courts”  program, where parolees will be referred by parole authorities to the reentry court, admitted only after the parolee voluntarily accepts the program, and the court agrees. The parolee can opt out at any time, (even after a violation), to be returned to the jurisdiction of the parole agency. Ultimately, this model may be an interesting option for those communities with limited funds, a commitment to a reentry court,  but also to “revocation hearings” with counsel present. One of the  most fascinating aspects of the nascent reentry court field, is the many innovative and pragmatic models being developed. The minimalist “Parolee Reentry Court” continues that tradition. [see examples of  quasi-minimalist reentry courts below: Harlem Parole Reentry Court; Ft. Wayne Reentry Court; Richland County Reentry Court; Boone County Reentry Court]

Whether a “minimalist reentry court” is effective, economical or lawful is an open question. If you have a comment, please share it with us.