Crime & Courts

New federal re-entry court in Alaska aimed at reducing recidivism

Federal officials in Alaska have established a "re-entry" court aimed at reducing the number of offenders' relapses into criminal behavior.

"The goal is to reduce recidivism, but really it's to help people reclaim their lives in a crime-free and a drug-free lifestyle," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Smith, who was credited by colleagues with heading up the effort to establish the court.

The U.S. District Court for the state set up the Alaska Hope Court by general order on May 29.

Re-entry courts are meant to closely manage people after they are released from prison, using court authority to steer them toward resources and offer feedback. It's like a team of guidance counselors for felons trying to re-establish their community ties.

That includes ensuring participants enroll in substance abuse or mental health treatment and helping them meet essential needs like housing and employment.

Research shows recidivism can be reduced through such assistance, officials said.

All federal defendants on probation and those who have completed their sentences and are on supervised release can volunteer for the re-entry court, with the exception of sex offenders.

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Smith said the exclusion of sex offenders is typical in similar courts nationwide. But they could be added in the future, she said.

As of May 29, the re-entry court team had identified 17 potential participants. All six of the people asked to join the pilot project so far had agreed. The first court session is set for June 25.

The revolving door

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess said he and others involved in setting up the re-entry court were interested in trying something new after dealing with the same offenders multiple times.

"It came from a basic frustration of seeing people come back to court too often after they've already been through the criminal justice system," said Burgess, who serves as the re-entry court's committee chair.

The team felt it was important to get involved earlier in the lives of recently released inmates and help them break bad habits, he said.

"Once people have served their sentence and paid their debt to society, as is often said, we all still have a role to play when helping offenders transition back into the community, so we don't see them again and start the whole process over," said first assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis.

The court system spends a lot of money dealing with people who break their release conditions, said federal public defender Rich Curtner.

Studies: Re-entry courts reduce recidivism

This is the third attempt to start a federal re-entry court in Alaska. The previous two attempts, Judge Smith said, were halted by concerns about effectiveness and availability of resources.

This time, a subcommittee reviewed numerous re-entry and therapeutic courts in federal districts with caseloads similar to Alaska's. They also looked at the state's therapeutic courts, officials said.

The re-entry team required that the Alaska court be founded on empirical evidence.

"We wanted to make sure we had a program that fit our (criminal) court and our community," Curtner said. "It was a matter of shopping and trying to come up with our own plan."

The subcommittee's report says there are more than 2,300 courts nationwide seeking to solve the problems presented by defendants with substance abuse issues and addictions. The bulk of these are called drug courts.

Several studies have found that drug courts reduce crime. One such study concluded that for every dollar spent on drug courts, the criminal justice system saves more than $2 in the long run, the report says.

Continuing dialogues

Judge Smith said she and her colleagues agree there should be swift sanctions for re-entry court participants who fail to follow the rules.

The severity of the sanctions varies and can include things like a few days of jail time for a positive drug test.

"That seems to be a very valuable feature," Smith said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin McCoy said that in criminal court, dialogue between judge and defendant often ends when a judge starts to detail why the defendant is being sentenced. Offenders tune out the court, said McCoy.

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Re-entry court will allow for greater interaction between judges and defendants, he said.

"What this program has that I don't have now is the opportunity to acknowledge someone's accomplishments and not just their failures," Burgess said.

A community effort

Community involvement is paramount to the success of the re-entry court, officials said.

Probation officer Chris Liedike will handle most of the daily work with the participants, including scheduling drug tests, making sure they maintain jobs and working with treatment providers, among other tasks.

Liedike said he has spoken with the Alaska Native Justice Center, which runs a cognitive behavioral program and has expressed an interest in assisting the re-entry court.

Officials have established relationships with other service providers, including Goodwill Jobs Connection Center and the Salvation Army's Clitheroe Center.

"We're going to be making a big push to partner with more groups in the community," Judge Smith said, "particularly groups who can help with the goal of ensuring stable housing and employment, which studies show are the two big prongs that are critically important to everybody to succeed."

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.

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