Another Chance Can Change a Life of Crime
The Bencher—July/August 2022
By Justice Arthur G. Scotland (Ret.)
It is judgment day in Reentry Court. But instead of having the serial car thief headed back to prison yet another time, the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and representatives of the probation department and multiple service providers stand, cheer, and applaud the defendant. Because this judgment day is graduation day in Reentry Court—a transition from a life of crime and custody to a productive crime-free and addiction-free life with the help and support of the court and community.
Reentry Court is one of seven collaborative courts in Sacramento County, California. The others are Veterans Treatment Court, Mental Health Court, Drug Court (known as Recovery Treatment Court), Homeless Court, DUI Treatment Court, and ReSET (Reducing Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking) Court for young women in prostitution. The goal is to provide repeat, non-violent offenders the support needed to successfully reenter the community without further incarceration and recidivism.
It takes a combination of commitments for collaborative courts to achieve their goal. First, criminal justice partners must commit to developing published guidelines governing a defendant’s eligibility for collaborative court adjudication of the defendant’s case. In Sacramento County, this task was done by a judge, prosecutor, public defender, probation officer (focusing on available community treatment programs), and sheriff’s office (in light of rehabilitation programs it already provides to inmates released from post-sentence custody). Agreed-upon guidelines for admission to a collaborative court encompass factors such as a defendant’s current offense, criminal history, and criteria unique to each collaborative court, such as substance abuse addiction, mental illness, and veteran status.
Next is the determination whether a particular defendant is eligible and suitable for the program—a decision that begins with a defense attorney applying for a defendant’s acceptance in the program. This also requires approval from the prosecutor and further assessment and approval by the court based on program guidelines.
Of course, it also requires the commitment of the defendant to comply with all of the program’s requirements—beginning with the defendant entering a no contest plea to the charge(s) and agreeing to a suspended sentence (usually up to three years in state prison or county jail in felony cases) and formal probation with general conditions of probation plus conditions specific to each collaborative court, including the defendant’s participation in an intake assessment of what has driven the defendant’s unlawful behavior and what can be done to address the problem(s).
The defendant is then referred to an Adult Day Reporting Center operated by the probation department, where probation officers and service providers develop a specific rehabilitation plan with a variety of services, including drug testing and substance abuse counseling; classes on anger management and cognitive behavioral therapy to help the person learn how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior and emotions; HALT (housing for accountable living transitions); employment skill development (including instruction on resumes, interview skills, and applying for jobs); parenting classes, if applicable; and more. Experience has shown that most criminality begins and continues because of substance abuse, with some defendants becoming addicted before they are 10 years old. Thus, sobriety is a mandatory requirement for a defendant to fulfill the program’s obligations.
A multi-disciplinary team, comprised of the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, probation officer, and service providers, monitors the progress of each defendant, who must appear in collaborative court every two weeks (unless otherwise directed by the court). Immediately prior to court being convened, the team meets to discuss each defendant’s progress, what steps still need to be taken by the defendant, and, in some cases, whether the defendant’s lack of commitment and compliance with program requirements means he or she is no longer suitable for collaborative court adjudication.
The court hearings include sincere praise from the judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, and service providers for defendants doing their best in the program; encouragement to continue to fulfill program objectives; and awards, in the form of gift cards, to those who have made significant progress toward turning their lives around. For defendants who are not fully taking advantage of program opportunities, there are expressions of disappointment from the judge and other members of the multi-disciplinary team and warnings that further failure to comply will have negative consequences.
Graduation day is the goal and is celebrated in style, with defendants’ family members in attendance, compliments by the judge and multi-disciplinary team members, and expressions of gratitude from graduates. In the words of one graduate, the court team “put a lot of hard work into this, and I didn’t want to let them down…I didn’t want to fail.” With their suspended prison or jail terms lifted in Reentry Court, or the charges against them dismissed in the other collaborative courts, the graduates look forward to a crime-free and positive future for them, their families, and the community as a whole. Some graduates even volunteer to mentor defendants going through the program.
A large part of the success of the Sacramento County Superior Court collaborative courts programs is due to the innovative and enthusiastic involvement of Anthony M. Kennedy American Inn of Court members: Court of Appeal Justice Laurie Earl, who, as presiding judge of the Superior Court, called for the creation of a Reentry Court; Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown, who collaborated with Earl to create the program and who presides over Reentry Court, as well as Mental Health Court, Veterans Treatment Court, Drug Recovery Treatment Court, and DUI Treatment Court; and Lee Seale, Esquire, former chief probation officer, now Superior Court executive officer, who was part of the team that developed the programs.
It also helps that Brown, a former state and federal prosecutor and executive director of the California District Attorneys Association, embraced the collaborative courts’ mission from day one and whose enthusiasm and sense of humor set an upbeat tone in the courtroom as he banters with defendants during their hearings. As Brown said, “Court is traditionally an adversarial system…In collaborative courts, everyone works together with a shared goal of treatment and recovery.”
The words of another graduate summarized the value of collaborative courts: “[Judge Brown and his court are] an absolute godsend. My life is completely different. If [Mental Health Court] hadn’t happened for me, I would have ended up right back out on the street and in the same situation.”
Justice Arthur G. Scotland (Ret.) is of counsel for Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni LLP and retired presiding justice of the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, in Sacramento, California. He is a Judicial Master of the Bench member of the Anthony M. Kennedy American Inn of Court. He is also a newly elected member of the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees and serves on the Editorial Board for The Bencher.