The newest program is the reentry court. It's modeled on the success of similar programs, called "drug courts," that have operated at the state level since the '90s. But unlike the states, federal reentry courts currently receive no extra funding from Washington, despite the extra work.

Jan Good, assistant U.S. attorney Sam Bertolet and Judge Jackson each clock about five hours a week on reentry court. Probation officers Roxanne Jolly and Ron Johnson put in ten to fifteen extra hours apiece.

Burris does point out one modest source of funding: The probation office has held six bake sales to buy bus passes for the participants.

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.

At last, the work may be paying off. Since its launch in April, the fifteen or so participants currently in reentry court are dropping dirty 47 percent less frequently than they were on regular supervised release, according to district program administrator Melissa Alexander.

Burris suspects he knows a major reason why. "What's really amazing, and until you see it firsthand you may not understand this," he says in a hushed tone. "A lot of the people, they've never been acknowledged for doing something right, and by having a judge telling everyone to applaud you for making great steps, I think it's the best thing we can do."

The judge he's referring to is Carol Jackson. Observers quickly learn she does not gladly suffer fools in reentry court. Frustrated in one session, Jolly recalls, Jackson sent every single participant behind bars for the day.

But her very presence sends its own message, muses Johnson. "People have said to me in conversation, 'Man, it feels good to be under the head judge of the Eastern District. The head judge of the Eastern District is taking notice of my life and what's bothering me,'" Johnson says. "That's powerful to people."

What attracts Judge Jackson to reentry court is the direct back-and-forth with criminal offenders that the system typically denies her. "If they go to trial, I see them in the courtroom," she says. "And if they plead guilty, I listen to it, and I sentence them. But what I know about people who stand before me is based on what other people have told me."

Jackson, along with Burris and Alexander, helped the national reentry-court movement take flight last year. They and representatives from other districts bundled their ideas and presented them at several government-sponsored workshops for federal judges in March, July and September. The reception was warm.

"When we talk about these programs, I feel like I'm delivering water to people in the desert," says Magistrate Judge Leo Sorokin from the District of Massachusetts. He, too, spoke at the workshops, and his own reentry court is growing and showing early signs of success. "People are thrilled about the idea of using their judicial authority to promote public safety and rehabilitation," he says.

Judge Ann Aiken from the District of Oregon, an ardent reentry supporter, can't believe the interest in her own program — one of the nation's first. "Literally, I can tell you people have called us like crazy," she recalls. "This is just flat-out happening way beyond what anyone had guessed."

The attention doesn't surprise her. "We're all tired of being impotent," she says. "We're not making a difference in our own communities, and when you see something like that, you're either part of the problem or part of the solution."

Now at least 37 federal districts are operating, planning or exploring the option of a reentry court. "We were nowhere near a third of the districts this time last year," says Mark Sherman, a senior education attorney at the Federal Judiciary Center. Sherman is cautious about predicting the movement's trajectory. "I think it remains to be seen whether the programs are actually effective because they haven't been evaluated yet," he says.


At the first reentry court session of 2009 earlier this month, Josh is the last to stand and report on his progress from the jury box. He will get no candy bar today.

About twelve of the program's fifteen participants were scheduled to show up and are now draped in chairs around him. His parents look on from the gallery, near a dozen federal judges from the Southern District of Iowa who've come to observe.

Josh has been doing well in some respects. His parents aren't losing their house for now, and his girlfriend is due to have his baby on Valentine's Day. He says he's left the game for good.

"People that's out there slinging, you gonna get dead or you gonna get locked up. Ain't nothin' beneficial that you can get from it," he says. "None of the money in the world is gonna add up to what you lose when you finally get caught."

Josh's main problems are staying clean and keeping appointments. In December he skipped both a urine drop and a couple of treatment sessions. Now back in reentry court, Jan Good is not at all pleased.

He begins to explain. "I was setting up for that interview..."

Good isn't having it. "Really and truly, you need to get more regulated," she says, and promptly orders him to spend the rest of the day locked up in the U.S. Marshals holding area to think things over.

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