Jun 4, 2010

Drug Court Conference Features Reentry Courts

Christopher Watler is the Project Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center where he oversees the operations of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court and Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force.

This week I am blogging from the National Drug Court Conference in Boston. This year’s conference includes a Reentry Court track. Reentry Courts, similar to Drug Courts, use the authority of the court to monitor offenders returning to the community

Jeremy Travis in his seminal article, "But They All Come Back: Rethinking Prisoner Reentry," helped to focus the nation on prisoner reentry (Sentencing and Corrections, May 2000). Borrowing from the experience of Drug Courts, Travis articulated a bold idea: “judges as reentry managers.” In 2000, nine jurisdictions were funded by the U.S Department of Justice to test the Reentry Court model, including the Harlem Parole Reentry Court. Since that time Reentry Courts have opened around the country. In 2010, a new Reentry Court grant program from the U. S Department of Justice has renewed national interest in the Reentry Court model.

On Tuesday I joined a day long focus group of Reentry Court practitioners from around the country convened by the Center for Court Innovation, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Council of State Government, and Judge Jeff Tauber of Reentry Court Solutions. Judge Tauber and Al Siegel, Deputy Director of the Center for Court Innovation, served as moderators. Several Reentry Court models were represented and discussed at the roundtable:

Model 1: Drug Court/Court with a reentry component. The judge receives cases referred from prison or jail for monitoring in the community. In this model the judge works closely with probation/parole and treatment providers. In some cases the Drug Court can retain jurisdiction on clients that fail and are sent to prison/jail. Returning them to corrections-based treatment prior to their return to the community.

Model 2: Administrative Court where the supervising agency (parole/probation) utilizes an Administrative Law Judge/Hearing Officer to enhance the normal post-release supervision process. In some jurisdictions, Pennsylvania for example, the Judge and a member of the parole board both sit on cases, although the parole board retains jurisdictions.

Model 3: Pre-Entry Courts as in the case of California were a panel of judges hear probation violation cases and can craft reentry plans as part of the violation process and retain jurisdiction once they are released. In Dallas, assessments are completed pre plea so the judge may consider if a person is eligible for the Reentry Court program as part of the sentencing.

Participants identified the unsustainable growth in corrections cost and the high rates of recidivism for persons on parole/probation. The “crisis in parole” that Travis had cited 10 years ago in his article still exist, yet the growth in evidence-based reentry strategies points the way more firmly towards reform.

Dr. Doug Marlow presented to the group on the research related to reentry and drug courts. According to Marlow reentry efforts must remain true to “evidence-based principles.” He cited the failed Project Greenlight Program, meta analysis of Drug Court studies, the recently released SVORI study, and the recently released evaluation of the Harlem Reentry Court as confirming what we now know:

  • Intensive community supervision efforts should focus on high risk offenders and should structure on average 40-70% of their time;
  • Corrections-based treatment services are much more effective when paired with community-based treatment;
  • Family therapy models do not work for adult offenders, with the exception of models that train family members to respond to a reentrant criminal thinking and behavior;
  • The most effective job training occurs when a reentrant first has a job and then receives support and instruction on career development and job search that leads to increased wages and skills;
  • Inmates only receive about between 50-66% of their needed services behind bars, this figure declines dramatically post-release, reaching lows of 10% in some cases. Lack of continuity in post-release service access reduces success;
  • Reentrants need greater supervision in their first 180 days of release to insure that they access needed services;
  • Graduated sanctions applied immediately and consistently in response to behaviors are essential;
  • Discretionary release (a.k.a revocable conditions) are the best way to reduce re-incarceration;
  • Safe and drug free housing is critical to success, “nothing else matters if this is not in place;”
  • And, evidence-based programs to address criminal thinking mediate other efforts. They should be manualized and delivered with a high degree of fidelity.

What does all this mean for Reentry Courts? The new funding is welcomed and will no doubt spur interest in the Reentry Court model. Yet, the national patience for increased social spending may not last long. Reentry Courts must show results over the next three to five years to justify their role in the national community safety infrastructure.

Persons returning from prison and jail will present new challenges for courts. Issues of due process, resources, victim rights, state policy, and local coordination with probation/parole and corrections must be addressed. Courts on their own cannot solve the reentry problem and may be challenged more than ever to work through the community, political, and agency fault lines of reentry. More than Drug Courts and most other problem-solving courts, Reentry Courts rely on effective local collaborations with a broad range of stakeholders. As a community court project, the Justice Center provides a partnership infrastructure that benefits our Reentry Court. Platforms like this blog and our recent work convening the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force allow us to connect with the community, share information, and address key challenges in ways that we could not when our Reentry Court project began in 2001. These synergies have enabled us to do things that most courts would find difficult to do.

I left the focus group feeling energized. Reentry Courts have tremendous potential, as part of the national reentry effort, to improve public safety in our most vulnerable communities by supervising reentrants and helping them to access services.