Crime & Courts

Federal program helps ex-cons stay out of jail

Tears welled up in the woman's eyes as she talked about life outside prison.

"I got out in 2008, and I thought, there's nothing to do, just send me back," she said.

But she and others found help in Wichita's federal courthouse.

The Kansas Treatment Re-Entry Assistance Court (KAN-TRAC) in Wichita is one of about two dozen federal programs across the United States designed to help people stay out of prison once their sentence ends.

The re-entry court supplements probation and helps federal convicts in Kansas reintegrate into society. The one-year program is voluntary and subjects participants to intense supervision and strict rules.

The program was organized by the Department of Justice in 2006 under President Bush and continued under President Obama.

U.S. Magistrate Karen Humphreys stood in front of the judge's bench recently, listening to the woman speak about her

fear of freedom.

"You don't have that structure, and I'm afraid of what will happen when I don't have that structure," said the woman, who spent six years in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.

The Eagle is not naming the KAN-TRAC participants to protect their privacy as they work to find jobs and be accepted back into a community where they've previously run afoul of the law.

Probation and parole officers say those who have spent time in prison often have difficulties when they get out. They don't have jobs or homes; some don't have family support. Many have drug and alcohol problems.

"For some participants, maintaining sobriety and a crime-free life may be all that they can accomplish," wrote Melissa Alexander, an administrator of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri. Alexander oversees a similar program and wrote an evaluation of Kansas' re-entry court.

Humphreys reassured the woman and the other four people in court for their monthly appearance that support and help will continue if they complete the program.

"We're not just going to drop you on the cement to fend for yourselves," Humphreys said. "We're going to celebrate your graduation, but that's not the end of the story."

Program used before

The re-entry court is in its ninth month of operation. But its philosophy is not new.

"We're going back to what we did 30 years ago," said Mona Furst, assistant U.S. attorney and the prosecutor on the re-entry court team.

"We used to try to rehabilitate people. Then the focus became on punishment. Now, we're trying to rehabilitate them again."

The court is similar to drug courts run by state and city courts, and a mental health court recently started by the city of Wichita.

A prosecutor, public defender, two drug and alcohol counselors, two U.S. probation officers and an employment specialist are on the team of people who regularly meet with and assess the clients' efforts between court sessions.

The team utilizes rewards for good behavior and tries to teach skills for maintaining a crime-free lifestyle.

There is no parole from federal prison, and after serving their sentences, former inmates are subject to years of probation. Successful graduation from the program can take one year off their probation.

At least one person has gone back to prison for not complying with the rules of the program.

"I see this as an opportunity to help people get through things that in the past would have resulted in them having to go back to prison," said Steve Gradert, the federal public defender in KAN-TRAC.

Getting a job

The program's policy said it's aimed at "high-risk" offenders who are under 40, have significant histories of drug abuse and criminal activity with little education or employment history.

Getting a job is one of the most important factors in success coming out of prison, said Bill Martin, supervisor of the U.S. Probation Office in Wichita.

It's also one of the most difficult tasks, with employers wary of hiring ex-convicts.

One man in the program said that he had undergone interviews and physicals with a local branch of a national shipping company.

"Then they found out about my criminal history, and the job went away," the man said.

He had been initiated into a gang at age 14. Eight years later, he was arrested as part of a large cocaine and methamphetamine ring.

Convicted of possessing a firearm while trafficking drugs, he was sentenced to five years in prison and three years probation.

"Having a job has not been a part of my life," he told the judge. "The streets have been a part of my life."

Now, he wants to help support his family as his wife goes to school.

"I'm no good to them back in prison," he said.

Annelies Snook, offender employment specialist with the federal probation office, pointed the man to a competing company that had been hiring people on probation.

"Believe it or not, there are employers in Wichita willing to give offenders a second chance," she said later.

Employers can receive state tax credits for hiring convicted felons and qualify for free insurance to protect them against losses including by theft, forgery or embezzlement.

Snook helps the former inmates learn how to dress appropriately, develop resumes and conduct themselves in interviews. She's encouraged by what she sees from participants.

Sometimes, it even brings tears to her eyes.

"I get emotional once in a while," Snook said. "You see the impact it has on an offender who wants to succeed."