This administration faces twin prison crises of epic proportions–an explosion in the number of Americans sent to prison (80% of whom are drug-involved) and the failure of most reentry programs designed to reintegrate the ex-offender into society. This paper will offer perspective on a reform strategy that will both reverse the rush to imprisonment and substantially improve the success of prisoner reentry efforts– while reducing the present system’s crippling financial costs.
The dimensions of the crisis
The Pew Center on the States released a report in 2008 finding that one in every 100 adults is now behind bars, the cost of imprisonment over the past twenty years has increased four fold (from $10.6 to $44 Billion), debilitating prison overcrowding is accompanied by over 600,000 ex-prisoners reentering our communities each year, and within three years of release, two thirds are rearrested and one half are returned to prison.
THE OVERWHELMING FINANCIAL AND HUMAN COSTS OF PRISON
The twin prison crises are slowly strangling and bankrupting many states, as essential services are threatened by the cost of prison expansion. Many states find overcrowded prisons under the threat of federal receivership. Prison populations have increased 700 percent since 1970, with over 75% imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. Tragically, non-violent offenders are introduced to violent criminal lifestyles in prison, while proven community-based alternatives, remain largely ignored.
OBSTACLES TO A National Reentry Court Initiative
Breaking existing prison-dominated sentencing patterns will be extraordinarily difficult. There are substantial incentives for following the “conventional wisdom” that felons, non-violent or otherwise, belong in prison. Sending non-violent offenders to prison allows local jurisdictions to shift financial costs to the states. The prison industry is an increasingly powerful economic and political force championing imprisonment. Politicians (which often include judges and prosecutors) see prison as the safe and politically advantageous sentencing choice. It remains the easy answer.
COMMUNITY-BASED CONTROL: THE MOST EFFECTIVE ANTI-CRIME STRATEGY.
At the beginning of the 19th century, prison was a radical departure from existing community-based control strategies. With the breakdown of societal and community norms, incarceration and prison, in particular, began its transition to “conventional wisdom”. But prison’s ability to prevent crime has largely run its course (Pew reports a 50% return rate) and drug courts are once again proving that community-based strategies are the most effective means to control non-violent offenders. The drug court team (including the judge) and other practitioners replicate a community where institutionalized and systemic structures assure the program’s effectiveness and survival, while a larger community of practitioners and offender/participants exert control over offender behavior.
REENTRY COURT: THE COMMUNITY-BASED ALTERNATIVE TO IMPRISONMENT
Reentry Courts have the potential to successfully focus community-wide energies and institutional attention on the problem of the returning felon, where well-intentioned, well-resourced multi-modal reentry programs often fail (see Policy Paper No. 3). Optimally, offenders participate in what might be described as a hybrid drug court, appearing at progress hearings before the judge on a regular basis to receive incentives and sanctions, and participating in mandatory and/or incentivized community-based programs, during the in-custody and out-of-custody segments of the program.
THE IMPORTANCE OF KEEPING THE OFFENDER “LOCAL”
A successful reentry/drug court provides a level of accountability and coordination unheard of in other programs. Through collaboration with government agencies and community-based organizations, the reentry/drug court provides a seamless delivery of rehabilitation services and supervision to the participating felon. Whether prison or jail based (as described in the next two papers), the court creates a community focus for city and regional efforts, by engaging the offender in the reentry community, providing easily accessible community resources, keeping the offender close to jobs, services and family, and regularly monitoring the offender in the local community.
THE REENTRY/DRUG COURT HYBRID: BASED ON TWENTY YEARS EXPERIENCE
It is important to recognize that Reentry Court is not a new or radical model, but a logical extension or next generation of the science-based drug court model that has proven itself successful over the past twenty years.. Reentry court is the final piece (the back end of a circular system) in an expanded or comprehensive drug court, allowing us to deal effectively with those who need drug court the most, the high-risk, drug-involved offenders entering or returning from jails and prisons.
THE SCIENCE-BASED RENTRY/DRUG COURT WORKS FOR HIGH-RISK OFFENDER
In 2003, Dr. Doug Marlowe, of the University of Pennsylvania’s “Treatment Research Institute” reported, “We know that drug courts outperform virtually all other strategies that have been attempted for drug-involved offenders”. More importantly, Dr. Marlowe noted that “high-risk [drug involved] offenders who have more severe anti-social predispositions or a history of not having responded to standard community-based treatment services” did especially well in drug court. As the Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that 80% of those imprisoned are drug-involved (and applying Dr. Marlow’s definition, largely “high-risk offenders”), the benefits of engaging those returning offenders in a reentry/drug court hybrid are overwhelming and obvious.
USING EXISTING STRUCTURE TO JUMPSTART REentry/Drug court SYSTEMs
Drug courts have most, if not all, of the infrastructure, expertise and community partners in place that a Reentry Court requires. Adding reentry court participants to an existing drug court would vastly increase the number of program participants, while improving high-risk offender compliance and successful reentry. Although it is estimated that there are over 2000 drug courts in the U.S., it is generally believed that most drug courts are greatly underutilized, with less than 5% of drug involved offenders placed in drug court programs. Putting reentry participants into drug court programs will create “systems” that work with offenders, pre-plea through post-custodial probation or parole, increasing the reentry/drug court’s cost-effectiveness, efficacy, and acceptance within the criminal justice system (practitioner acceptance remains a serious issue in many jurisdictions).
UNANIMOUS ENDORSEMENT BY STATE CHIEF JUSTICES AND ADMINISTRATORS
Our Chief Justices agree with the assessment described above, as all 50 State Chief Justices and their State Court Administrators have gone on record in both 2000 and 2004, as unanimously endorsing the problem-solving court model as the most effective means of dealing with recidivism. They concluded that “drug court and problem-solving court principles and methods have demonstrated great success in addressing certain complex social problems, such as recidivism, that are not effectively addressed by the traditional legal process”. Conference of Chief Justices CCJ RESOLUTION 22; Conference of State Court Administrators COSCA RESOLUTION 4.
RELEVANCE OF CONCEPTS AND PROPOSALS TO FEDERAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Federal prison populations have doubled in the past ten years, with 90% incarcerated for non- violent offenses. The concepts and proposals found in these papers have as much relevance and applicability for federal sentencing, detention, and prison systems as they do for the states.
In the Monograph, REENTRY DRUG COURTS, published in 1999, I wrote of the need to close the “custody gap” in drug courts: “Reentry drug courts provide a mechanism for the successful reintegration of the serious drug-using offender back into society. This is done by keeping offenders engaged in corrections-based treatment and court-based monitoring throughout their custody term and once released, providing a continuity of appropriate treatment and court-based accountability in the community.” (National Drug Court Institute Monograph #3; J Tauber, W. Huddleston, p.2)
Unfortunately, since I wrote that passage there have been few reentry courts established and little significant data collected. What we do know, however, from twenty years of research on drug courts, is that they provide the most successful rehabilitation strategy to date for “high-risk” drug-involved offenders. We can reasonably expect to replicate the success of drug courts with “high-risk” drug involved offenders in RDC, both entering and leaving our jails and prisons.
Some may argue that the federal government shouldn’t take the lead in what is primarily a state and local issue. But there will be little progress in efforts to move away from imprisonment, until this administration champions a national reentry court initiative that will provides national leadership, financial incentives, and implementation strategies–including education, training and mentoring.
RECOMMENDATION: CREATING A NATIONAL REENTRY COURT INITIATIVE
1. Establish a national reentry court initiative, whose purpose is to expand drug courts into reentry/drug court hybrid systems intended to keep non-violent offenders in jail-based reentry courts and provide prison-based reentry courts for returning prisoners.
2. Devise criteria for jail-based and prison-based reentry courts that provide clear parameters for eligibility, sanctions/incentives, structural integrity, and programs resources and services.
3. Provide substantial incentives for states and local jurisdictions, to establish and maintain community control of non-violent offenders, to keep non-violent offenders local, in jail-based and prison-based reentry/drug courts that fully comply with established federal criteria. October 15, 2008
 All data (without attribution) are provided by the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJA)