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January 08, 2021 National Conference of Federal Trial Judges

NCFTJ Chair's Column

Hon. Miguel Torres, El Paso, TX

Few aspects of judging are more challenging than sentencing.  As a new judge eight years ago, I was surprised and a little unsettled at how fifteen years of criminal defense work had not fully prepared me for the challenge of sentencing a defendant.  While the law requires us to consider factors like deterrence and the seriousness of the offense, it also tells us to look at the defendant’s educational and vocational needs. What of the individual defendant, then, whose sentence of incarceration will end some day and will need to find his way back into society? How do we best address all of these concerns and make sure that defendant does not make his way right back to the podium in your courtroom, facing another charge? 

It is from these perpetual questions that many courts have embraced the growing reentry court movement in criminal justice, a re-thinking of the more traditional role of the courts.  In a nutshell, the judge in a reentry court takes a much more hands-on approach with the goal of re-integrating the offender into society and offering the array of judicial resources towards the ultimate effort of addressing the chronic and nagging challenge of recidivism.  Alongside the traditional, court-mandated supervision, in a reentry court the probation officer, the defense attorney, and the prosecutor, each encourage, challenge, and sanction the defendant in a non-adversarial setting.  A number of courts, including the District of Oregon and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, for example, have longstanding and successful reentry programs.

In my home at the Western District of Texas, where we have one the busiest criminal dockets in the country, U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo of El Paso has blazed a trail in the reentry court concept, enhancing it through innovative approaches and creative collaborations.  Judge Montalvo began his first program (the only reentry court in the district) ten years ago.  The Sendero (“path”, in Spanish) Federal Reentry Program focuses on the re-integration of recently incarcerated defendants.  Sendero is strictly voluntary, available for non-violent offenders who are amenable to treatment and counseling.  Upon the successful completion of the intense reentry program, the defendant’s supervised released is terminated.  Six years ago, Judge Montalvo expanded the reentry concept to a diversion program, for post-guilty plea defendants in drug cases. Under the Adelante (“forward”) Federal Diversion Program, the U.S. Attorney’s Office vets the defendants for qualification.  A defendant, after pleading guilty to the charge but before sentencing, can have his case dismissed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office upon the successful completion of the program.  The result of avoiding a felony conviction on a defendant’s criminal record crucially advances that person’s prospects of better jobs and reintegration as a productive member of the community.  This post-guilty plea diversion program is one of only a handful in the country and is already reaping benefits in El Paso.

Of the approximately sixty participants over the years in both programs, the program has had a remarkable recidivism rate of zero for its participants. You read that correctly: none has re-offended.   What is the secret behind this astounding success?  Judge Montalvo attributes it to Sendero and Adelante’s strong team commitment, and its combination of cognitive behavioral therapy with groundbreaking training in mindfulness, deep thinking, and logic.  This latter approach is accomplished through the court’s collaboration with the Philosophic Systems Institute (“PSI”), headed by Dr. Juan Ferret in El Paso.   Through a program developed specifically for Sendero and Adelante by Dr. Ferret called “Shadows to Light,” supervisees engage in a curriculum that integrates the arts, social-emotional learning, and higher level thinking, to change decision-making behaviors that help them to reconnect with themselves and into society.  Recently, PSI was awarded a two-year grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its work with our Court’s Shadows to Light program.  Specifically, the grant will help individuals on federal supervision in the El Paso Division who wish to pursue post-secondary education or vocational training.  Towards that end, the grant funds two full-time social worker positions to promote these educational goals and to facilitate the offender’s reentry to the community. 

Judging is a privileged but often challenging opportunity for public service.  The knowledge that our decisions can have life-altering effects on an individual turns our work also into soul-searching exercises.  Nowhere is this more acutely felt than in sentencing. But there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that, in the fulfillment of your duties, you can be a force for positive change in people’s lives, one person at a time.  Judges like Judge Montalvo, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken of the District of Oregon, and Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo (formerly a U.S. Magistrate and District Judge), who pioneered the first reentry programs in their districts, show us what can happen by taking a new, creative look at old problems. Our courtrooms are places steeped in the observation of venerable traditions, customs, and practices. Yet, it is empowering to see them also as wellsprings of creativity and innovation in addressing some of society’s most vexing and enduring challenges.