Criminal Justice Section  


Criminal Justice Magazine
Spring 2002
Volume 17 Issue 1

Reentry Courts

According to traditional American jurisprudence, the role of the judge in a criminal case is to oversee courtroom proceedings relating to a defendant’s guilt or innocence and appropriate disposition of the case. Over the last decade, however, drug courts and other problem-solving courts have been testing another model. These judges use the power of the courts to set and monitor explicit conditions for a defendant’s behavior (e.g., don’t use drugs, get regular drug testing, go to treatment). They use a mix of graduated sanctions and incentives as tools to change the defendant’s behavior, and reinforce success if these changes are achieved. The concept of a "reentry court," first introduced in 1999 by Attorney General Janet Reno and Jeremy Travis, then-director of the National Institute of Justice, challenges criminal justice professionals and communities to apply the principles of the drug court to the back end of the system—to use the incentives and sanctions of judicial oversight to effectively address the complex challenges of offender reintegration.

Reentry courts—there are now a small number springing up—generally include these core elements:

• A "reentry transition plan" acknowledged by the court and the ex-prisoner that is tailored to individual risks and needs, and addresses an array of employment, treatment, housing, family, and supervision issues. The reentry court must have at its disposal a range of supportive and supervision resources to draw upon in order to implement the plan.

• Regular oversight of the reentry plan by a court authority that has the discretion to swiftly impose a predetermined set of graduated, parsimonious sanctions and incentives to motivate good behavior. Common sanctions include community service work, increased supervision levels, additional drug testing or treatment, or short periods of time in lockup.

• Accountability to victims or community via strict attention to ongoing restitution orders, community service requirements, or even a citizen advisory board.

• Rewards for success, such as graduation ceremonies similar to those seen in drug courts.

Aside from these central ingredients, reentry courts will vary tremendously depending on local needs, resources, and statutory frameworks. For example, the first generation of reentry courts includes a Delaware court that focuses on domestic violence cases, an Iowa reentry court for offenders diagnosed with mental health disorders, and a court in Florida that targets substance abusers.

Importantly, because the authority for post-prison supervision is often not vested with the judicial branch, reentry courts operate based on a variety of approaches, each consistent with local statutory frameworks. In Ohio, for instance, the Richland County Common Pleas Court judges use split sentences and a shock probation authority to supervise many of the returning inmates. In New York City, an administrative law judge—with authority from the parole board—manages reentry court participants within a community court setting. And in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the reentry court judge has actually been vested with authority by the Indiana Parole Commission to supervise returning prisoners on the commission’s behalf.

In each of these models, the court and individual are working together to address the risks associated with release from prison, and to improve the odds of successful transition to a productive life.

In January 2002, the United States Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Labor, Education, and Housing and Urban Development jointly issued a national reentry solicitation, "Going Home: The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative." The grant program will award approximately $100 million this year to at least one community in each state, and is designed to enhance public safety by supporting broad strategies that prepare prisoners for successful reentry and reintegration. The solicitation acknowledges reentry courts as a promising approach, and encourages the development of additional reentry courts throughout the nation.

For more information about existing reentry courts or the federal reentry solicitation, see reentry/welcome.html. For more discussion on the concept of reentry courts, see "But They All Come Back: Rethinking Prisoner Reentry" at prisoner_reentry.pdf.

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