A small group of people is gathering in the chambers of U.S. Magistrate Judge John Conroy at the federal courthouse building in Burlington at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. They're here as part of a program called re-entry court, a program for people coming out of prison with a history of drug addiction.
The people assembled for this meeting are mental health and addiction counselors, lawyers — a prosecutor and a public defender — and a federal probation officer, but they're not here to defend or convict. The aim is to help get participants onto a path to a better life.
“In the criminal justice system we see people as either witnesses or defendants,” says Conroy, who was involved in starting this federal court program in 2009. “Here we see people as human beings and we come to know the challenges they face with regard to housing and employment and treatment and relationships and physical health, mental health.”
The program is an intense one. The participants in it are all at high risk of re-offending and are high need, based on their level of drug addiction prior to prison. They’re assessed by specific criteria. Risk factors include age of onset of criminality and the age that drug use began. Other risk factors include a history of violence, family history of criminal involvement or addiction, negative peer influences, prior treatment failures. A prior felony conviction — which everyone in this case has — is also a risk factor.
“They also have to be individuals that, should they graduate from the program, we as a system feel comfortable and have the OK to reduce their supervision," explains David Sem, a U.S. probation officer who specializes in supervising people in recovery. That means not everyone is eligible for the program.
“Sex offenders are excluded. People with serious mental health issues or serious histories of violence are traditionally excluded," Sem says.
But for those individuals who are eligible? If the volunteer participants can complete the one-year program, they get one year off probation.
Before the court session begins, the group gathered in Conroy's chambers talks about what's been happening in the eight participants' lives over the last two weeks. They cover a range of topics including housing, treatment and financial situations.
One case is a participant who was suspended from the program because of a relapse a month ago. He wants to come back, and he's been clean since he got in a buprenorphine program. The team considers whether or not they should let him back in and the judge decides he'll ask this gentleman to stay clean for another two weeks, and at the next court session he'll be invited back.
Another young man is in week 40 of the program, but he has a diluted urine test that they need to address. Negative for drugs, but diluted. They decide to give him a warning, but they're also going to require increased urine testing and ask him to contribute financially to the increased testing costs.
A third participant has been trying to address issues in her children's school and to deal effectively with the Department for Children and Families. The team is really excited about her progress.
Simple but monumental goals
After the preliminary meeting, everyone gathers in the federal courtroom. In this proceeding, the public defender and the U.S. attorney sit together at one table, instead of across the aisle from one another in trial-like opposition. Addiction and mental health counselors join as well.
Conroy greets the participants – who sit in the jury box, not in the defendant’s chair – and then the judge addresses one young man who's come to observe. He's out on probation for a heroin charge and he is considering joining the program.
“The goals of this program are pretty straightforward,” Conroy explains. “They are as follows: that you remain sober, law-abiding and either pursuing work or education.”
With the goals established, Conroy continues describing specific components of the program, beginning with participants coming in every couple of weeks to talk with him about everything happening in their life. He mentions the treatment component, the probation supervision and the written assignments for participants.
The judge then turns to the current participants seated in the jury box. He asks one young woman to come to the podium. After a cheerful greeting between the two, Conroy moves onto questions about her job – she recently received a raise – and they discuss her housing situation. She and her husband may be able to get a loan to buy a place of their own.
“I admire you for your ability to think in the long term,” Conroy says to the woman. “You're not thinking about tomorrow alone or next week alone. You're thinking down the road. That's a wonderful thing.”
“I want to be able to say that I own something,” she responds.
Each participant engages in this type of conversation with the judge. Sometimes Conroy pushes them, based on what he's learned in that pre-courtroom meeting, but a lot of what happens is support and encouragement.
Victories and challenges
After the session, Howard Center clinician Christine Hayner says part of her job is to be a booster for the participants.
“When they succeed, even when they're just small goals that they reach, it's the reason I do this job,” Hayner says. “But it's not all cheerleading and that's the reality of being a clinician. There's some pretty dark times that they walk through, and we just hope that they can move forward in their lives and their recovery.”
Dan Hall is another clinician at the Howard Center. (Hayner runs a women's group, and Hall runs a men's group.) He says these participants deserve to be commended for what they're doing when just staying sober is a huge challenge.
“These participants lead extraordinarily hard lives,” Hall says. “When they can get support, sometimes it's the only support they're getting in their whole life. And so we’re able to offer that in addition to all the other structure and skills that is offered.”
David Sem, the U.S. probation officer, says those skills and structure are a huge component of this program, adding that he often thinks substance use is a means of coping with another problem.
“You remove the substances and the folks are still having the same issues, whether it's past trauma, conflicts in their family, lack of employment, lack of education,” Sem explains. “Those issues don't suddenly or miraculously get better, just because they're now substance-free.”
Sem says a challenge then lies in what he calls the “now what?” stage, as participants may find themselves needing to navigate situations like creating a new peer group or putting distance between themselves and negative influences. Helping with this stage, Sem says, involves providing assistance so participants know the right tools to use in a situation, in order to prevent a return to old patterns of behavior when things get hard.
Jennifer, a 32-year-old native Vermonter who recently graduated from the re-entry court program, stops by with her infant twins after the court session. She talks about her personal experience: she'd been in prison for selling heroin, which she was also addicted to.
“It was awful in jail and awful being away from my family and my son,” Jennifer says, pausing with a sigh. “I didn't want to go backwards anymore. I had hit my devastating point.”
But when she came out of prison, she said she was motivated to change her life. Jennifer joined the re-entry program.
“That was, I want to say a hard year – but not really, actually,” Jennifer says, her voice brightening. “It was a really good program. It was really structured for me. It kept me on track. It challenged me. There was times where it was challenging around my work schedule but I made it work and I just kept putting one foot forward.”
Getting a year off supervised probation was a major motivator, but it wasn't the only benefit, she says now.
“My initial thought was, 'A year off probation?' I was thrilled about that,” Jennifer confesses. “Then after a couple weeks of doing it, I started to really like it. I liked the people that were in it.”
She was also influenced by both the failure and success of other participants.
“Failure helped motivate me more when other candidates didn't do good or didn't succeed in it,” Jennifer says. “And the ones that did succeed pushed me to do better also because I wanted to graduate the program like them and show that it works.”
Jennifer says she was held accountable by the program – not just in achieving sobriety, but in participating in structured tasks, like finding a job. Jennifer says her life lacked purpose when she was using, but now she feels differently.
“I'm a hard worker now. Motivated, responsible, which I never thought I'd be again,” Jennifer says. “My life has joy and meaning now. There's a reason to get up. There's a reason to smile. There's a reason to do good every day. It's full of purpose.”
Jennifer says she's proud of the victories she's achieved – she recently bought a new car – and she's setting her sights on the future. She wants to work her way up at her job, and save up to buy a house.
Not everyone succeeds the way Jennifer has, but U.S. Attorney Eric Miller says the program is a success.
“I think that the work being done by the re-entry court is some of the most important and effective work being done in the federal criminal justice system in Vermont right now, particularly with respect to the opiate epidemic that we're all dealing with,” Miller says.
Miller says it's important for his office to remember that it works for the Department of Justice, not the Department of Prosecution.
“Sometimes serving justice means prosecuting people and even putting them in jail. But if community safety is one of our highest goals, I don't think that we as prosecutors, and I would say we as a criminal justice system, are doing our job if we think that it ends when sentence is imposed," he says.
Miller acknowledges that those leaving prison find themselves facing many challenges, and it’s in the public’s best interest to help those individuals address those situations.
“If we don't give them the tools to help overcome those challenges, we do risk higher recidivism and we're really not serving one of the highest goals, which is keeping Vermont communities safe.”
Judge Conroy says the program takes a significant amount of time and energy for the lawyers, the probation office and the judge himself. But Conroy insists that it's worth it, and says he believes this program is saving lives, one life at a time.
“It's an extraordinary program where we see moments of high drama, great emotion. But we also see moments of extraordinary routine, the routines of life,” Conroy says. “I'm fond of saying life is hard, and to whatever extent we can assist these participants in meeting these life challenges, it's very rewarding. It's exhausting, but it's rewarding.”