By Chief Judge Richard L. Young
On Nov. 1, 2015, approximately 6,000 federal inmates were released from prison earlier than originally expected, representing the largest one-time influx of offenders coming under supervision by the United States probation system. This mass release was due to a sentencing guideline amendment that was approved by the United States Sentencing Commission in 2014, which reduced the custody range for federal drug offenses and authorized the lower range to be applied retroactively to some 46,000 inmates in the Bureau of Prisons. While the release of so many prisoners on one day was unusual, it is important to note that in the federal justice system, the vast majority of individuals sent to prison will be released at some stage. It is thus critical for the sake of the community and for the well-being of the offender that services and guidance are provided to reduce the likelihood of a released offender committing future crimes.
In the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, individuals convicted of felonies are placed on supervised released as a condition of their sentences. United States probation officers monitor former inmates (who are called clients) and inform the court of any violations of an individual’s terms of supervised release. The United States Probation Office for the Southern District of Indiana and its community partners have established a number of programs to help clients learn new ways of thinking, obtain housing, find jobs, repair family relationships, and eliminate destructive behaviors. These efforts reduce recidivism rates and therefore benefit not only the client but also the wider community.
One of the longest-standing initiatives in the Southern District is the voluntary Re-entry and Community Help program. Dating back to 2007, REACH gives high-risk clients an opportunity to participate in monthly informal hearings with a team composed of a federal judge, federal public defender, assistant U.S. attorney, and U.S. probation officer. During these hearings, clients interact with the REACH team and other offenders to discuss and address issues such as substance abuse, employment, criminal thinking, family relationships, and peer association. Each client and their team also set short-term goals; completion of these goals is rewarded with positive reinforcement, including verbal praise, certificates of acknowledgement, and a celebratory reception. In addition to the monthly hearings, federal probation officers maintain weekly contact with REACH participants. Motivated individuals who successfully complete the two- to three-year program are eligible for early termination of supervised release.
The REACH program has produced significant success stories. In one instance, an offender with a 35-year criminal history who had spent the previous 15 years in federal prison volunteered for the REACH program upon his release. In spite of the individual’s high risk for recidivism, he showed diligence and worked with his REACH team members to obtain housing, life skills, and job training. Over the course of his two-year participation in REACH, the individual completed each phase of the program without any violations. As a result, the court granted early termination of his supervised release, and the man has become a productive and contributing member of society with no arrests or infractions.
The efforts to facilitate successful re-entry in the Southern District of Indiana extend beyond the REACH program. With the support of the court, Indiana Federal Community Defenders Inc., and the United States Attorney’s Office, the probation office has adopted a cognitive-behavioral strategy known as Moral Reconation Therapy. MRT is designed to challenge moral reasoning in everyday life, thereby enhancing thinking and improving behavior. MRT is generally voluntary but also can be ordered by the court as a term of supervised release. During weekly group therapy sessions, which are facilitated by a probation officer certified in MRT, participants complete certain steps toward improving their moral reasoning. Studies have shown that former offenders who complete MRT are considerably less likely to recidivate.
Newly released offenders also face issues that require legal assistance to overcome, like sorting out child support obligations, addressing a suspended driver’s license or outstanding traffic citations, and securing housing. The newly established Legal Assistance Program, a partnership between the United States Attorney’s Office, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, and the Indianapolis Bar Association (with the support of the probation office and Indiana Federal Community Defenders), pairs an attorney and a law student with newly released, high-risk offenders to provide legal advice and assist with court proceedings relating to such issues. The benefits of this program are wide-reaching, as lawyers have the opportunity to mentor law students; students receive academic credit and valuable experience; high-risk offenders are able to overcome challenges that may otherwise stand in their way of successfully re-entering society; and the community sees further reductions in recidivism rates.
The U.S. Probation Office also works with the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office of Re-entry, Workforce Development, Goodwill Industries, and other area partners in its effort to assist clients with successful re-entry. Additionally, court-ordered treatment for substance abuse, mental illness, gambling addiction, and sex offenders assists offenders returning to society, as do residential re-entry centers, or half-way houses, which provide inmates nearing the end of their term of imprisonment the opportunity to adjust to more freedom and responsibility before fully re-entering the community.
But what do these programs actually accomplish? Approximately 80 percent of clients in the Southern District of Indiana complete their term of supervision without being sent back to prison. In contrast, national studies have shown that individuals coming out of state prison systems have recidivism rates of over 67 percent in the three years post-release, with 56.7 percent of these offenders re-arrested in the first year of their release (though it must be noted that recent Indiana Department of Correction records indicate their adult recidivism rate is 37.6 percent). While some of those who do re-offend may have had access to the best programs, training, mentoring, and other support systems, successful re-entry is an individual choice. The United States Probation Office for the Southern District of Indiana, in conjunction with many partners, goes to great lengths to assist its clients in making the right choices.•
Richard L. Young was appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on March 25, 1998, and has served as chief judge since November 2009. He has chambers, and presides over cases in Evansville and Indianapolis. The opinions expressed are those of the author.