The Trouble with Reentry Courts……

April 29, 2013

In the title of this blog and its substance, I am extrapolating on issues presented in an excellent article, “How to Make Drug Courts Work”,  authored by Harold Pollack, Eric Sevigny and Peter Reuter, published in the Washington Post  (April 26,2013). The issues explored relating to drug courts are almost identical to those facing other problem-solving courts or specialty courts, including reentry courts.

In the Post article, its authors lament that drug courts and other specialty courts are slated to receive $80 million with possibly little to show for it. They point out that although numerous (half of all counties claim to have a drug court), they average only 50 participants. More significantly, too many courts stick to a limited, and political cautious approach to their specialty courts. By that i mean they screen out the serious or violent offender, and work with those who need the intensive specialty court services the least. As Professor Ed Latessa has highlighted in his research at the University of Cincinati; spending money, resources and energy on low to medium risk offenders, whose offenses are non-serious and non-violent is a poor use of limited resources (see in this website: “High Risk Offenders do Better in Half-Way Houses”). As the article’s authors succinctly put it,”Drug courts could be more helpful in reducing crime and incarceration, but only if they become more ambitious and less risk-averse by taking in populations likely to serve real time”.

And here is where Reentry Courts come in. Reentry Courts don’t focus on drug abusers unless they have a serious drug dependency. They do focus on offenders coming out of custody who have served “real time” for serious and/or violent offenses. That is their purpose, whether there is a drug dependency or not. Keep in mind that these offenders will overwhelmingly be released with or without the serious supervision and rehabilitation services of a Reentry Court. What possible sense does it make, to work with those who pose the least risk to society and benefit the least from an intensive intervention like Drug or Reentry Court.

The authors argue that drug courts [and reentry courts by extension] widen the net of formal social control. That “Even if these drug court participants had been incarcerated, many would likely have received short terms, often in county jails, for less than a year”. It is as if fishermen were to pull in their nets and throw the big fish back and harvest the small fish. It is not logical, does not make our communities safer or serve them well. But we  continue to keep the small fry, and let the big fish return to the wild.

Systemic Approaches to Sentencing: Part 6

May 5, 2012

The Components of the Sentencing Track: Part 6

The  diagram above can be thought of as two separate segments. 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 (“Understanding the Risk Principle”), that mixing low and high risk offenders is counter-productive at best. That same dynamic works in the court room. 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” to 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 (see: Front Loaded Court Based interventions) .

The next segment will look at how decisions are made in an evidence-based Sentencing System 

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