New federal offender re-entry program has two graduates so far

A federal program designed to help convicts return to society as productive citizens has graduated its first two participants.

The mostly volunteer program with no budgeted funding began in June 2012 in Dayton’s federal court. The first handful of federal re-entry courts began within the past decade. Only about a third of district courts have or are planning re-entry courts.

U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice and other federal judges designed the program to diminish the barriers convicted felons face when they return to society.

Debra Horton said prison saved her life and that the U.S. District Court’s federal offender re-entry program in Dayton has given it meaning.

“I think that if the judge didn’t send me to prison initially, I’d be dead,” said Horton, who served eight years in prison for drug trafficking in Dayton. “I think that, because I am a woman and (if) I’m out here (now) in streets selling dope, they’re not playing no more, you know what I mean. Before, I could get robbed and still be alive. Now you get robbed and you have to die.”

Horton, one of the program’s first graduates, now has a promotion into management at Kroger, counsels others and is moving into a new home.

Rice, who in 2010 co-founded the Montgomery County Ex-Offender Re-entry Program with county commissioner Debbie Lieberman, points to that program’s successes that came with help from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The county program’s 2013 budget is $316,468. The federal program is for ex-offenders sentenced in the Southern District court system.

“When we started, the county’s recidivism rate was in the very low 40s,” Rice said. “It’s now about 28 percent. The recidivism rate for those who have gone through our program is about 12 percent. We’re very proud of that, particularly if you consider what the economy has been like over the past three years. We’re working hard and we believe we’re making a difference.”

Rice said he knows the problems felons have getting jobs, finding landlords who will rent to them and staying off drugs.

“There is resistance across the whole spectrum, but we’re gradually breaking that down,” Rice said before Wednesday’s re-entry court. “We’re trying to publicize what we do. We’re trying to introduce people to the success stories, not just the failures that sometimes they read about.”

Rice and U.S. Magistrate Judge Sharon Ovington preside over the monthly meetings along with representatives from the federal prosecutors, federal public defenders, probation, public re-entry programs, two graduates of the program and others.

Horton and Douglas Bland, the re-entry court’s first two graduates, have stories Rice wants to share.

Rice said Horton’s husband was a big-time drug dealer and that she was “heavily involved” in his operation and mildly addicted to drugs. He said she came out of prison with the right attitude and has reunited with her three children who are now in their early 20’s.

“I feel like I have a powerful testimony, definitely,” Horton said. “I had been selling drugs since I was like 25 years old. I’m 43 now. I was in and out of jail. I started selling weed to crack to heroin. That’s how I lived. I did eight years in prison. My husband got 20 years. He’s still there.”

She said re-entry court gave her structure and showed that the people who sent her to prison now want her to succeed. She is getting involved in prison ministry and mentoring.

“It was my choice to stay a part of the program and to sit on the panel. I could have just graduated and gone about my business,” Horton said. “This is like my passion now.”

Bland was convicted of conspiracy to distribute “more than two tons” of marijuana. He served 67 months in prison, got out and backslid into a bad situation. He said he was stabbed, got hooked on prescription drugs in the hospital and later turned to heroin.

About a year and a half ago, Bland entered re-entry court.

“Probation officers can’t believe how he’s turned himself around because of what they had previously been dealing with and what he’s doing now,” Ovington said. “He’s really inspirational.”

Bland has a full-time job at Delphi, speaks about his experiences to those trying to get off drugs and has a relationship with his family. Bland credits re-entry court.

“They’re there to punish me for my wrongdoings, but they’ve also been there to support me 100 percent to put my life back on track after my incarceration,” Bland said after listening to some of the failings of the five active program participants. “I was where they were at. I had all the same excuses they had. I’m hoping that something will click as they go along.”

One participant has been sailing along, getting five-star months — participants get from one to five stars depending on drug tests, showing up for appointments and other factors — and likely will become the program’s third graduate next month if he gets a 12th five-star rating next month.

Ovington said the program doesn’t enroll those people most likely to succeed, but takes moderate- to high-risk volunteers who are willing to have every aspect of their life picked apart in court. “The people who will have challenges are the ones we focus on,” she said.

Rice said those from various ideologies should agree about the benefits of re-entry program.

“It doesn’t matter what the motives are … as long as everybody wants the same result,” Rice said. “This is the most important thing I’ve done, bar none.”

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