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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Descending the steps of the federal building later that day, Josh is asked how the afternoon went. "It was all right, it was all right!" He laughs and pulls his coat's hood up onto his head. "I need these people to stay on my ass," he says. "On my own, I get back into my old ways — fast."

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