Promising Sentencing Practice No. 10
Reentry Courts and Programs

photo collage

By Judge Richard Vlavianos (California)

Using judicial authority to apply sanctions and rewards and to marshal resources has been shown to be effective in drug courts.102 Likewise, courts can oversee the re-entry process, whether from prison or jail, which can include monitoring, supervision, case management, service provision, and community involvement.103 This supervision does not negate the role of probation and parole which are relied upon to aid society by trying to maximize the opportunity for the offender to rehabilitate. Courts need to examine the resources within the community to determine what is available and to bring those programs to bear upon the re-entry of offenders. With 95% of all State prisoners being released from prison at some point, nearly 80% are released to parole supervision.104 Among State parole discharges in 2000, only 41% successfully completed their term of supervision, 42% returned to prison or jail, and 9% absconded.105“Among the State prisoners expected to be released to the community by the end of 1999, 84% reported being involved in drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense which led to their incarceration.”106 Re-entry courts and programs can assist in reducing the number of offenders involved with alcohol and drugs who return to prison or jail.

What Are Reentry Courts?
Reentry courts serve six primary functions in the release of jail and prison inmates: (1) assessment and planning; (2) active oversight; (3) management of support services; (4) accountability to the community; (5) graduated and parsimonious sanctions; and (6) rewards for success.107

Assessment and Planning
In the assessment and planning phase, the correctional administrators, reentry judge and parole or probation agency perform a needs assessment and develop a plan prior to release. The assessment can include social services, drug and alcohol counseling, family counseling, health and mental health services, housing, job training, and work opportunities.108 The key is to match offenders to programs that will meet their individual needs. Many reentry programs target specific minority groups and are effective in dealing with the cultural differences to successful treatment of offenders. Assessment tools are available. Some examples of assessment tools for alcohol and substance abuse are: ASI (Alcoholism Screening Inventory); AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test); CAGE (Cut Down, Annoyed, Guilty, Eye-Opener)109; DRI (Driver Risk Inventory); MAST (Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test); SALCE (Substance Abuse Life Circumstances Evaluation); and SASSI (Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory). Judges should assess and choose these tools after consulting with the service professionals.


Active Oversight
During the active oversight phase, the offender attends regular court appearances beginning immediately after release and continuing throughout supervision. Like drug courts, program participants witness other offenders’ court appearances.110 Reentry courts are designed to reduce recidivism and improve public safety through the use of judicial oversight of returning offenders. They do this by reviewing offenders’ reentry progress and problems, ordering offenders to participate in various treatment and reintegration programs, requiring alcohol and drug testing and other checks to monitor compliance, applying graduated sanctions to offenders who do not comply with treatment requirements, and providing modest incentive rewards for sobriety and other positive behaviors.

Management and Support Services
The court oversees the provision of support services by marshalling those services which may include substance abuse treatment providers, job training programs, private employers, faith institutions, family members, housing services, and community organizations, among others. These organizations are accountable to the court.111 Once judges have identified programs that work and have matched a program to the offender’s needs, they need to monitor the offender’s progress. Courts often order the offender to participate in a program, and then rely on the probation or parole office to follow through and ensure the offender is satisfying the program’s requirements. Unfortunately, offenders often fail to complete these programs, even when the judge orders them as a condition of probation or parole.

Experience shows that unless the court sets a future date to assess compliance, most individuals ordered into programs will not comply with the requirements of the program. Many of the offenders assume that the system is so large that they can always fall through the cracks without the court holding them responsible. It is too easy to avoid the unpleasant, which is exactly what most substance abusers want to do. They know that probation departments are overwhelmed with cases.

If the court requires the offenders to return to the courtroom to provide proof that they are completing the program’s requirements, the compliance rate improves. The potential consequences for disobedience of the order are much more real, and offenders are usually concerned enough about them to actually follow through. By establishing a calendar for individuals to report back to the court and approach the judge face to face, more offenders will complete their reentry plans.


Accountability to the Community
In some jurisdictions, courts have used citizen advisory boards to provide insights and suggestions and to ensure community involvement in the offender’s reintegration into the community. In some cases, the court may find that restitution is required, so the court would oversee that process. Also, many courts work with victims’ organizations.112

Graduated and Parsimonious Sanctions
The courts and supervision agencies need to establish a predetermined range of sanctions for violations of supervision conditions. In doing so, the sanctions need to be administered swiftly, predictably and universally.113

Rewards for Success
During the planning stage, identification of program milestones is extremely important. The use of rewards for offender’s successes (e.g., early release, graduation ceremonies, movie tickets, etc.) are necessary to recognize those milestones. Like failures, it is advisable to recognize the successes in a public forum (e.g., the courtroom).114


Assessment of Reentry Programs
To ensure that offenders successfully reenter society, judges should become familiar with the available programs that work. As part of this process, courts should establish performance standards for the programs they use. A necessary part of any set of performance standards is a documented record of success, preferably using an evidence-based evaluation. Ideally, an outside evaluator would perform the evaluation. Good reentry programs will reassess and update their success rates periodically.

Judges should ensure that all programs are evaluated based on whether they actually work, rather than whether they sound good or are the current fad. Judges should not be afraid to try new concepts and ideas, but they should remember to have them independently evaluated as they use the programs. Too many programs that initially showed promise ultimately were found to be counter-productive or ineffective when critically evaluated.115

An Example of a Reentry Program
One reentry program that has shown great promise is the Delancey Street Foundation. Delancey Street is a San Francisco-based, self-help residential treatment center for drug addicts, alcoholics, convicts and the hard-core unemployed.116 The participants either self-select to enter the program or are referred by judges, lawyers, or prison counselors. During a screening interview conducted by senior residents in the facility, applicants must personally request admission into the program and verbally accept responsibility for the problems of their past, their current position in life, and what they plan to do once they leave Delancey Street.117 While in the program, veteran residents brief new residents concerning four primary things: (1) life fundamentals (e.g., how to dress, eat, and speak properly, manage time, practice cleanliness, etc.); (2) physical labor skills (e.g., janitor, chef, automotive mechanic, etc.); (3) interpersonal skill (e.g., waiting tables, sales, etc.); and (4) tutoring (e.g., residents tutor one another, so a resident with a 10th grade level of proficiency in mathematics and language tutors a resident with an 8th grade level, who in turn, tutors someone with a 4th grade level).118 The residents stay for a minimum of two years and an average of three and one-half years.119 To support itself, Delancey Street does not use public funds; rather, it supports itself primarily through the successful operation of businesses including a restaurant, a café and bookstore, a moving company, paratransit services, automotive services, Christmas tree sales, handcrafted furniture, and handcrafted pottery and art objects.120 Research Fellow Michael Bragin found that almost 12,000 former addicts, felons and welfare dependents have graduated from the program since 1971.121 He also found the following:

  • Even among the 25 percent who enter Delancey Street and end up dropping out in the first two months, roughly 1 out of every 10 returns and successfully completes a rehabilitative stay. Though 20 to 25 percent of those who do graduate end up back on drugs, welfare, or in prison, the majority of the foundation’s graduates are definite success stories. For every 100 indigents and criminals who enter Delancey Street, an average of 59 of them successfully pass through the program and move on to obtain legal [meaning lawful] jobs, pursue largely self-sufficient lives, and stick to a path of social responsibility and economic accountability.122

Beside its main site in San Francisco and another site in Los Angeles, the foundation currently has successful affiliate sites in New Mexico, New York, and North Carolina. The approach has also been used in Massachusetts and New Zealand.123 Nevertheless, one of the goals of the foundation is to replicate the program in additional States, and Congress has appropriated funds through the Department of Justice to the Eisenhower Foundation to help others replicate the model.124

102 Lindquist, C., Hardison, J. and Lattimore, P., “Reentry Courts Process Evaluation (Phase 1), Final Report,” United States Department of Justice, Document No. 202472, p. 3 (2003).
103 Id. at 4.
104 Hughes, T. and Wilson, D.J., “Reentry Trends in the United States: Inmates Returning to the Community after Serving Time in Prison,” Bureau of Justice Statistics (2004).
105 Id.
106 Id.
107 Supra., note 1, at 4.
108 Id.
109 CAGE’s mnemonic comes from the following questions: (1) Has the individual tried and failed to cut down the amount of drinking? (2) Does the individual get annoyed and irritable when he or she drinks? (3) Does the individual feel guilty about the drinking? (4) Most importantly, does the individual want a drink after waking up in the morning (i.e., need an eye-opener)?
110 Id.
111 Id.
112 Id.
113 Id.
114 Id.
115 Id. (This study examines nine reentry court sites around the country and evaluates the success of the accompanying programs).
116 Bragin, Michael, “Moving Social Services Back to Our Communities,”, p. 6 (visited November 16, 2004).
117 Id.
118 Id.
119 Id.
120 Delancey Street Foundation, (visited Nov. 16, 2004).
121 Id. at 8.
122 Id.
123 Id. at 9.
124 Delancey Street Foundation, (visited Nov. 16, 2004).