It is no secret that incarceration rates in the United States are higher than in most large western democracies. On the Federal level, high incarceration rates can be traced to sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences for drug and violent crimes, and increased plea bargaining. However, our society cannot simply value punishment without rehabilitation, because after all, those who go to prison will eventually be released and come home to our communities.
This past summer, I had the privilege of working for the United States Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, an experience I will carry with me during my professional career. This article discusses my experience with the Supervision to Aid Reentry Program (hereinafter “STAR”), a first of its kind reentry program developed by jurists and legal professionals within the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, geared toward helping former federal inmates reintegrate into society. Since its creation, the STAR Program has become a model post-release reintegration program adopted by many additional federal and state jurisdictions across the United States.
In 1984, the United States Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act, which eliminated parole for all federal defendants convicted after November 1, 1987. All federal inmates are required to serve their full sentences, which in many cases are heavier than state sentences because of sentencing guidelines and statutory minimums. Additionally, inmates do have an opportunity to earn up to 54 days per year for good behavior. Upon release, former inmates are typically placed under “supervised release” and monitored by officers of the United States Probation Office. However, recidivism rates, which are the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested and charged with similar offenses, remained high, with many former federal inmates being sent back to prison for probation violations or convictions for new crimes.
In 2007, members of bench for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania created the STAR Program, better known as Reentry Court, to help recently released federal inmates, who had served lengthy prison terms, reintegrate into the community. The program is voluntary and typically lasts for 52 weeks. The eligibility criteria include individuals with a significant risk of recidivism and/or history of violent crimes, who are Philadelphia residents. The groups, or classes, contain up to 20 participants currently on supervised release, who appear as a group every two weeks before U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice or Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge L. Felipe Restrepo. The bi-weekly meetings allow the program participants to report on their progress regarding developments with employment or with their personal lives. U.S. Probation Officers, together with Federal Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys and Judges, assist participants with obtaining an education, employment, housing support, and financial literacy. The program culminates in a graduation ceremony attended by Judges of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. District Judges (many of whom were the original sentencing judges), U.S. Magistrate Judges, Federal Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys, and most importantly, friends and family members of the graduates. From my modest experience as an aspiring attorney, it is a rare instance where a courtroom is a place of celebration, where leaders of the Pennsylvania legal community come together to ensure the post-release success of those who have duly served their time.
Punishment can come in many forms, and the failure of the justice system or the community to help properly reintegrate former inmates who served their sentence punishes them further and harms the legitimacy of the justice system’s major tenet of rehabilitation. As citizens living within the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, we should be proud of the federal jurists and legal professionals who came together and created such an important program which addresses the struggles and barriers faced by an often neglected population: those who have served their time and now must reenter the community. Thomas Paine once said, “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty . . . . He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates his duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”