Sweet Treatment: An experimental program offers rich rewards to drug-addicted ex-cons in St. Louis who keep themselves clean

Editor's note: The Eastern District of Missouri granted Riverfront Times access to reentry court sessions — normally closed to the public — on the condition that the offenders' names be changed.

Nearly eight years ago, Chief Judge Carol Jackson of Missouri's Eastern District — known to some as "hang-'em-high Jackson" — gave Mike 41 months of hard time for dealing drugs. Last month, she gave him a candy bar.

On this mid-December morning, Mike and four other ex-offenders are perched in the jury box of a courtroom on the fourteenth floor of the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse. Dressed in blue jeans, they look down on Judge Jackson and the lawyers assisting the U.S. attorney and federal defender. They sit above their probation officers, and even their drug-treatment providers, whose colleagues are charged with watching the men piss into cups during random drug tests.

Doug Burris has presided over a major transformation in the way the Eastern District of Missouri handles ex-offenders.
Jennifer Silverberg
Doug Burris has presided over a major transformation in the way the Eastern District of Missouri handles ex-offenders.

These officials, known as "the team," assemble each Thursday at 9 a.m. to help some of the most addicted ex-cons in the St. Louis area climb out of the catch-and-release cycle. They call it "reentry court."

Clad in a white hooded sweatshirt, Mike is the first to stand. He lets forth a "Good morning, team," to which all respond, "Good morning!" Assistant federal defender Jan Good asks if his mental-health counselor picked him apart this week. He grins. "I wouldn't say 'pick me apart,'" he says. "But she let me know who I was." Good asks if he's still using. "No, ma'am," he replies.

Judge Jackson interjects: "You know, you seem so much more hopeful. I see that smile is back." A short woman with close-cropped black hair, she adds, "I'm really happy to hear that you feel things are going well. So keep up the good work." Mike grins again, and Good continues, "And you get a candy bar. What kind do you want?" Mike says Snickers, and Good roots one out of a plastic grocery bag and tosses it to him.

Treating ex-offenders this way is catching on. With no additional funding for the dozens of hours of extra work, more than a third of federal districts nationwide now operate a reentry court or are considering it.

Of course, reentry court is not really a court at all, but an enhanced version of supervised release — the post-prison period when ex-offenders aren't yet totally free. The program's goal is to prevent relapse and re-arrest. Only those showing a high risk of continued drug abuse can volunteer. Once they do, they get a year shaved off their supervision period.

In exchange, they're required to undergo intensive substance-abuse treatment. They must submit to more face time with their probation officers. And they must report their progress to the team at these Thursday morning court sessions, where they get slapped for misbehavior, cheered for good behavior and reminded of the cardinal rule: Don't lie.

If the experiment fails, residents in eastern Missouri will have one less remedy for handling the swelling number of addicts returning from prison to their neighborhoods. The supervised-release population has roughly doubled since 2000, the district's probation office reports.

Last September probation officers were keeping an eye on about 1,980 recently released offenders. Some 75 percent of them had been ordered into substance-abuse treatment by the court. More ex-offenders are on the way. More than 900 returned to eastern Missouri communities last year, a statistic that's been increasing by 10 to 15 percent annually.

Professor Michael O'Hear, a specialist in the field of prisoner reentry at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says the influx stems from decades of "increased reliance on imprisonment as a response to crime."

That increased reliance, notes Duke law professor Sara Sun Beale, has created a criminal justice system "that is significantly more punitive than any other Western democracy, and an incarceration rate that is — by a large margin — the highest in the world."

In conventional warfare, fallen soldiers don't come back. But in the war against crime, O'Hear says, "nearly everyone we send away to prison eventually comes back," which costs taxpayers nearly $25,000 per prisoner each year. And many in this Missouri district are coming back — addicted.

On the morning of December 2, 2003, Josh was spooning cereal into his mouth when ten federal vehicles rolled up to his parents' house near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Expecting his neighbor's door to get kicked in again, Josh peered out from the front door as the agents pulled on bulletproof vests.

But this time, they hadn't come for Josh's neighbor. Within seconds, Josh, then 26, was cuffed, and the agents swarmed the house.

Now a reentry court participant, Josh can smile about that morning. Dressed in baggy jeans and an XXL button-down shirt, he says it was "scary," and then laughs. But there is a tightness to him that lingers even now. One can see it in his narrow goateed face, in his straight cornrows, in his taut frame, behind his dark brown eyes.

Until that December day, he'd never been in trouble with the law. His parents kept a close watch on him and his brother in their house between Fairgrounds Park and Interstate 70. They made them go to church and kept them away from the nearby crack houses and stray bullets.

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