As he got older, though, Josh felt compelled to catch up with the guys out on the street. "When I did get out into it," he says, "I hit it kinda hard."

Josh sold crack on the north side of St. Louis for seven years before his arrest. He did it, he says, to feed the chronic marijuana addiction he'd picked up after dropping out of high school.

"I wasn't doing that good to be out there buying cars or houses," he says. "I was hustling to maintain my lifestyle." For Josh, that meant a blunt in the morning, again in the evening and all day in between.

Ron Johnson and Roxanne Jolly spend fifteen hours a week with reentry-court participants.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ron Johnson and Roxanne Jolly spend fifteen hours a week with reentry-court participants.

Pot, he says, wasn't simply a party. He couldn't fall asleep at night without it. "I'm really an amped person. I don't deal with stress well," he says. "But when I smoke weed, I can kick back and relax, so that's what I used it for."

Yet it wasn't the dealing and smoking that brought him down. It was calling the owner of a St. Louis record label to get a small loan. Unbeknownst to Josh, that owner happened to be the kingpin of a drug ring on whom the feds were running a wiretap.

When federal agents rounded up the gang, they seized $3.6 million in cash, along with four vehicles. Josh's calls about securing the loan had been interpreted as code. He denied it, but still got three years for conspiracy.

The stress, he says, dogged him his entire first year in the federal prison outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had to learn in a hurry the most basic prisoner etiquette: Never reach over somebody's meal tray. Never cut in line.

He managed to pass the time, earned his GED and took some drug-education courses. He even played sports — so much so that he was out shooting hoops on the day the prison staff called his name and said, "Bunk and junk!" (Translation: "Gather your stuff; you're gone.")

Josh was dropped off at a bus station near the prison on March 30, 2007, a free man. "I was just looking up at the sky," he recalls. "To get up there and really touch a leaf, see cars driving by, smell the air — smelling the air was like totally different. It was like while you was in jail, you wasn't breathing."

But he wasn't exactly free yet. He still had to do six months at Dismas House, a halfway house off North Kingshighway Boulevard. "You try to come out and get back in the world, and they think since you been locked up, you ain't had no contact with drugs," he says. "There's more drugs when you're locked up than when you out in the streets. And there more drugs in Dismas House than anywhere else."

Last spring, Josh's probation officer proposed a new path for him: the reentry program. "It was fresh. They didn't really know too much about how they were going to run it," he says.

Professor O'Hear says the country is suffering what he calls a "prisoner reentry crisis." More and more men and women — now more than 600,000 — get released from state and federal prisons annually, mainly as the result of a massive wave of incarceration in the 1980s and '90s. The crackdown, says O'Hear, was fueled by a philosophy called "legalism."

Legalism holds that once someone commits a crime, he's freely chosen to thumb his nose at society and, in doing so, surrenders any claim to empathy and support.

"Something that really captured the whole legalist mindset was Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' campaign," reflects O'Hear. "The way she presented drug offenses was that it's purely a matter of choice: You either say yes or no, and you should be punished solely on the basis of that choice."

As crowded prisons began to release more ex-offenders after 2000, politicians took notice. Shepherding former criminals back into society was a cause that both Christian conservatives and socially minded liberals decided they could unite behind.

In 2007 then-U.S. senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden, in concert with Republicans Sam Brownback and Missouri's Jim Talent, sponsored the Second Chance Act and managed to pass it into law. The bill funneled money to states for developing prisoner reentry programs.

This recent political warming to reentry coincides with a shift in how the scientific community views drug addiction. Unlike the "Just Say No" conception of choice, the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) now fully embraces the notion that serious drug addiction is a chronic brain disease.

According to the NIDA's website, addictions "affect the brain's natural inhibition and reward centers, causing the addict to use drugs in spite of the adverse health, social, and legal consequences."

The implication for drug-related crime and public safety is simple, according to Dr. Wilson Compton, one of the NIDA's directors. "If you want to keep dangerous people off the streets, you have to do something to cure their underlying condition," he says. "When someone has an addiction, simply locking them up won't do the trick."

Josh "dropped dirty" for the first time about a month into reentry. In probation lingo, that means his urine sample contained drug residue.

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