Reentry Court Axiom: Smaller “Margin Of Error”

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) sponsored Reentry Court “Focus Group”, held in Boston, June 1, arrived at what might be described as a “Reentry Court Axiom”,  that “the greater the risk of  a particpant re-offending, the smaller the “margin of error”, for reentry court practitioners, to get it right”. Reading a transcript of the “Reentry Court  Focus Group” proceedings left me with the strong impression that, while the Reentry Court are largely based on the drug court model,  high-risk offenders returning from jails and prison, would pose a greater challenge than other  participant groups to date.

This conundrum was spelled out in the presentation of Dr. Douglas Marlowe, NADCP Director of Law, Policy, and Science, when he described the above mentioned, “Reentry Court Axiom” and the need to be diligent in the application of “evidence based practices” (see: Dr. Marlowe’s comments).  Other practitioners/experts in the field came to seemingly diferent conclusions. Judges Steven Manley of Santa Clara County , CA, and Chris Carpenter, of Boone County, Mo., agreed that the reentry court population would have to be treated differently than other populations, and that they presented a special challenge for the reentry court professional. But they concluded that allowances woud have to be made to keep the high risk offender in the reentry court; in effect lowering the bar required of reentry court particpants to stay in the program.

After reviewing the transcript, the seeming conflict resolved. Both Dr. Marlowe and the practitioner/experts agreed that this would be a more difficult population, one that would require “evidence-based practices” to be applied faithfully and diligently. But within those “practices” resided the flexibility (and  even necessity) for “lowering the bar”, by applying intermediate sanctions to  non-violent probation/parole violations.  Innovative intermediate sanctions, applied swiftly and with certainty, will allow the Reentry Court  to keep the offender in the community, without violating the participants’ parole/probation, or sending the participant back to prison.

I came away from my co-facilitaiton of the focus group (with Al Siegel, Deputy Director of the Center  for Court Innovations), with an understanding of the difficulty of effectively dealing with the Reentry Court population. But also with the belief that Reentry Court is our last best opportunity  to stem the flood of offenders returning to our prisons. [Reentry Court Focus Group Transcript. June 1, 2010]

Columbia Reentry Court:A Probation-Based Reentry Court

The Boone county reentry court model has a split sentence structure that relies upon probation, rather than parole, to provide services and monitoring. Those sent to prison, receive treatment during an initial four month prison term and are returned to the reentry court for continued treatment, rehabilitation and monitoring. Approimately 80 returnees are part of the progam at any time.

Judge Chris Carpenter attributes the program’s documented success to a level of accountabilty and structure that touches the participant even before they leave prison. A returning offender is interviewed by the reentry court coordinator before leaving prison, released from prison on Tuesdays only, transported for an extensive interview and assessments with  the coordinator on Wednesdays, and transported to court on Thursday for the offenders first reentry court hearing. During this period, the offender is in held at “Reality House”, a secure facility, and only released after court and upon the judge’s order.

 Though Judge Carpenter also presides over drug and mental health courts, she believes that the seriousness of the returnees criminal history and criminal attitude require that they be separated from other problem-solving court participants. The reentry court team is made up of  judge,  program coordinator, probation officers, case managers, job training counselors, and treatment specialists.  Of interest; even though this is a county probation-based program, prosecutor and defense counsel are not part of the reentry court, unless and until the participant is terminated from the program and a “probation revocation hearing” ordered (  see “Minimalist Reentry Court” ). Nor is this a voluntary program. Everyone sentenced under the split sentencing statute who returns to the community after four months (many who have been sentenced to substantial prison terms), enters reentry court, signs a contingency contract, and is a participant in the program. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Columbia reentry court, is that it is part of a seamless rehabilitation process, whose dimensions and consequences  are known to all, even before a plea is enterred into.

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