Federal program to help ex-convicts re-enter society

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There are nearly 219,000 people in federal prisons, most for very serious crimes, and -- like it or not -- almost all will come out.

Michelle did. She emerged from prison in 2010 at the end of a six-year sentence for conspiring to sell at least 100 grams of heroin. She had already served state time, and when her federal probation officer told her about a new, intensive program designed to get her life on track, she jumped at it.

"I was like, I want to get into it because it would give me something different," said Michelle, 38, of Penn Hills, who asked that her last name be withheld. The program included intensive supervision, potentially stiff punishments and a relatively modest reduction in her probation term, but that didn't deter her. "My freedom is worth more than anything."

With that, she joined the Reentry Into Society Effort, or RISE, a 2-year-old effort, kept quiet until recently, that is in the midst of an expansion. U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton publicly introduced RISE three weeks ago at a conference at the University of Pittsburgh on returning prisoners to society.

"We have 700,000 people leaving [state and federal] prisons this year, and we have to do something about re-entry," Mr. Hickton said in an interview with the Post-Gazette. "The goal is to try to reintegrate them into society in a way that they won't go back to a life of crime."

Twenty convicts have been through RISE, with 10 in the program now, and Mr. Hickton said that's not enough. His prosecutors, the U.S. Probation Office, the Federal Public Defender and several involved judges are all taking steps to try to expand the program -- although tight budgets hinder them.

"We didn't have enough people to do what we wanted to do," said Chief U.S. Probation Officer Belinda M. Ashley, who recently increased, from one to three, the number of her officers assigned to RISE cases.

RISE, the brainchild of U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose, is a court within a court. There, a cohort of recently released convicts, all facing lengthy probation sentences, spends a year living in a judicial fishbowl.

Invitations to the RISE process go only to convicts with addiction problems, and they have a right to refuse.

Those who sign on meet monthly, together, in a room in the U.S. Courthouse, Downtown, with a judge, a prosecutor, a public defender, probation officers and social service providers. They talk about struggles with addiction and about the difficulties they have as felons when seeking jobs, housing, transportation and child care.

"Without fail, someone on the RISE court committee has the connections and the knowledge to guide that person to a solution to that problem," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen P. Kelly, who often presides over the meetings. One RISE convict had a noncriminal legal problem, and Judge Kelly, who used to chair the board of Neighborhood Legal Services, was able to get her an appointment with a lawyer right away.

The meetings "just opened my eyes to a lot of things, just to hear everybody else's story and what they're going through at that time," Michelle said. "The same things [other RISE participants] had done, I'd done. I'd done that since I was 12 years old. I didn't want to live that life no more."

"It's a very positive experience for the candidates who enter the program, because they get treated in a different way than they would otherwise have been treated in the past," said Michael J. Novara, first assistant federal public defender. "They get to sit around a table with a judge and a prosecutor and the probation office and see that people really care about their lives."

Participants set goals and meet frequently -- sometimes several times a week -- with probation officers. They are subjected to very frequent drug tests, and failure to cooperate has consequences.

Pass a dirty urine or miss appointments, and you can face travel restrictions, electronic monitoring, community service, placement in a halfway house or even a week back in prison.

"When I first got into it, I thought, 'This isn't for me,' " said Michelle. "But it was for me." A number of her cohort members didn't make it through the year, she said.

Those who survive a year of intense scrutiny and avail themselves of the services must then stay out of trouble for yet another year. If they succeed, they go before a judge who can shave a year off their probation.

Michelle got court approval from U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti for the one-year probation reduction this month.

"If you show them that you've changed," Michelle said, "you completed with flying colors and you're still doing good, I feel they should take your probation away" entirely, she said. Still, she's glad for the reduction, from five years to four, of her probation term.

She is taking tutoring and planning to go to college for business, while taking care of a young daughter and awaiting a second.

RISE-type programs were in place in a small number of federal courts when Judge Ambrose and Ted Johnson, former chief U.S. probation officer, started exploring the idea around 2008. They knew that tougher mandatory minimum terms of incarceration for drug convicts had created a burgeoning prison population and that the expirations of many of those sentences were about to create a flood of ex-cons.

Court personnel visited pioneering programs in Oregon and Massachusetts, and then built their own Pittsburgh model focused on convicts with addictions.

Why not offer the RISE treatment to more convicts?

"Twenty [participants in two years] doesn't sound like a lot, but it's a lot when you consider all of that" work and staff time put into it, Mr. Hickton said.

Ms. Ashley said she wants to expand the program and may hire more probation officers early next year because the need is great. She added that court personnel can't do it all.

"We're going to have to have that support from churches, community groups and employers," she said. There's always a risk in dealing with ex-offenders, she said, but given the cost to society of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people, it is a chance society must take.

"If they're given an opportunity to work, and feed their families long term, often they do not go back."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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