Thursday, July 30, 2015

Long Prison Sentences Don't Solve Problems. Here's Our Federal Court's New Solution

Posted By on Thu, Jul 30, 2015 at 6:07 AM

Empty cells could be a good thing, says a federal judge - IMAGE VIA
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  • Empty cells could be a good thing, says a federal judge

US District Judge Audrey Fleissig has known for years that long prison sentences don't solve a criminal offender's problems.

"They're expected to come out and have a better life than they had before they were in prison for 10-15 years," she says. "Whatever was going on in their life before they were imprisoned is probably at least as bad now; their family structure has probably been totally decimated, if it wasn't before."

In addition, long sentences cost money: $28,893 per federal inmate per year, according to a 2011 statistic in the Federal Register.

So last March, Fleissig, along with her colleague Judge E. Richard Webber and several others who work in the Eastern District of Missouri's criminal court launched an alternative: the Sentencing Alternatives for Improving Lives program, a.k.a. SAIL.

SAIL looks like this: Anyone charged with a federal offense -- whether related to fraud, firearms, drugs, etc. -- would first plead guilty. They then sign a contract pledging to not commit any more crimes and to follow SAIL rules, which include agreeing to drug tests, house visits and counseling sessions with Pretrial Services officers and the SAIL team.

Instead of going to prison, the offender spends a year in SAIL -- not just to avoid getting locked up, but also to genuinely improve their lives.

Participants receive a detailed handbook outlining the expectations, phases, and various people available to help out, including pretrial services officers; Judge Webber and Judge Fleissig; two assistant U.S. attorneys, and two assistant federal public defenders.

The program has also enlisted the help of Gateway Legal Services, St. Louis University and Washington University Law School clinics, in case participants need a hand resolving warrants and other legal issues.

Participants must complete three phases to pass the program, remove their guilty plea and have their charges dismissed. If they fail, they will spend time behind bars.

"They have a tremendous incentive," says Judge Fleissig.

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