Relapse is a necessary detour on the recovery highway, but dropping dirty in reentry court is serious business and brings swift sanctions. When Josh showed up for the Thursday session after he made the drop, the urinalysis report hadn't yet arrived in Jan Good's hands. So he made a choice.

"It was kinda difficult to go in there and straight tell on yourself, because you know you're gonna get a whoopin'," he says. "But it's less trouble." When he snitched on himself, the reentry team ordered him to write an essay explaining what he should have done differently.

Had he lied, the team could've decided to mete out harsher penalties in its next pre-session, like being locked up for a day or more in the U.S. Marshals Office, doing community service, or undergoing inpatient treatment.

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.

Josh says he'd learned not to hide his relapse by observing those who had. Scheming (a.k.a. "running game") in reentry court can be a messy affair, says probation officer Roxanne Jolly. "We've had some participants that have gotten up there and they just start crying and having meltdowns. Some of them get mad and storm out the door," she says. "These are addicts, and when they're actually using, they're in the denial stage, and they don't want you pointing out their faults. They want you to give them the quick fix, and there isn't one."

Participants who consistently show up for treatment, meet with their probation officers during home visits, drop clean urine and make it to court on Thursday mornings are rewarded. Sometimes it's a candy bar, sometimes just applause. When one former meth addict was promoted to a less intensive phase in his treatment, Judge Jackson offered him a choice of a Walgreens or QuikTrip gift certificate. "QuikTrip, I guess," he said. "I don't really need to be going to Walgreens."

Josh tested positive for drugs a second time in late November. It happened after his family received word that the bank was planning to foreclose on their house. Again, Josh reached for the weed. In his weekly one-on-one with counselor Robert Brown at the Center for Life Solutions, he admitted that he'd smoked and explained why. Josh left Brown's office at 6 p.m.

By 6:45 p.m., Brown sent an urgent e-mail to the team explaining Josh's housing situation. Around 8 a.m. the next morning, Judge Jackson herself called Josh's family for details. The phone rang all day as court officers inquired about documents and offered advice.

In the end, team members managed to help stall the foreclosure. "I always look at the government as somebody trying to hurt me," Josh says. "But for all of them to take time out that day and help my family, they went above and beyond the call of duty."

Still, Josh's dirty drop didn't slip past his probation officer. "He chewed me out," Josh recalls. "With an addict, we're always looking for an excuse," he says. "That's what my goal is right now, to get my mind frame out of the excuse. If I can get past the excuse, I be good."

When Doug Burris saw a burly figure crossing the office in his direction, he rose and looked for something to use to defend himself. Burris was an executive at a Kansas healthcare company at the time, and he recognized the man.

"Do you remember me?" the man asked.

"Yeah, I do," Burris answered.

His name was Matt. Years earlier, back in Oklahoma, Burris had been his state probation officer. While on probation, Matt kept dropping dirty for a variety of drugs. Burris once caught him trying to cleanse a urine sample by sprinkling in crystal Drano he'd stored under his fingernails. Burris ordered him into treatment. When Matt got out, Burris had left the state.

"I've been looking for you for a long time," Matt said. "I got something to show you." He fished out his wallet and unfolded it to reveal a small photo.

"Do you see this little boy?" Matt asked. "Because of you, he has a father." Within a year, Burris gave up the corporate perks and took a pay cut to return to work in probation.

Burris, the Eastern District's chief probation officer since 2000, recounts this anecdote with a gentle earnestness. "That's why I say I got the best job on the planet, because my probation officers create stories like that every day," he says. "We can't help everybody, but I sure like those stories."

Though he's loath to take credit for it, Burris has presided over a thorough eight-year transformation of how the probation office handles ex-offenders.

Two or three dirty drops while on supervised release in the 1990s bought you a ticket straight back to prison, says federal public defender Lee Lawless. But now, other options are explored first, such as more intensive outpatient or inpatient treatment.

"We have had a more enlightened policy here for quite a long time," Lawless says. "It's been incremental, but that's the way it's been under Mr. Burris."

Burris has helped construct a menu of programs to ensure that those who get out of prison stay out. Shortly after taking the reins as chief, he and others contacted area employers to build a job-placement program. It has shrunk ex-offender unemployment down to 4.3 percent — compared to about 7.2 percent for the general population of both St. Louis and the rest of the state.

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