Re-entry can open doors to a better life

Issue January/February 2016 By Robert W. Harnais

In November, I wrote a column proposing that criminal defense lawyers could in many instances serve their drug-dependent clients well if they sought dispositions that included intensive drug treatment.

Now I'd like to make a recommendation along similar lines in suggesting that defense lawyers try to get their clients into an inmate re-entry program if it becomes clear that incarceration is inevitable or highly likely.

Over the last decade, the concept of re-entry has increasingly been seen as a key to reducing recidivism. From a societal point of view, that means fewer crimes and fewer crime victims. It also means defendants are not getting back into trouble as frequently.

"Wait a minute! That's bad for business," says one of my wiseacre defense bar friends. Perhaps, but there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of people who want to enter the criminal justice system. And if you really care about a client's wellbeing, re-entry programs give the repeat offender a fighting chance of changing his future for the better.

The concept is simple. Corrections officials work with offenders while they are incarcerated to address the problems and traits that led to their committing crimes. Counseling on substance abuse, domestic abuse and impulse control are common among the various programs. But it goes further than that to address substandard education achievement, which contributes to a lack of employment, housing and health care. All of these aspects fall under the umbrella of the best re-entry programs. Vocational training often is part of the program as well.

Norfolk County Sheriff Michael G. Bellotti, for whom I worked as general counsel, is a big proponent of re-entry. "Virtually all of our inmates at the Norfolk County House of Correction return to their communities - our communities - in a matter of months," Sheriff Bellotti says. "It behooves everyone to help them stop committing crimes."

He added, "The big test is the transition to freedom upon wrapping up their sentence. There has to be some continuity of the progress made while incarcerated. We use volunteer mentors who meet with the inmates while they're in jail, establish a rapport, and continue to help them after their release in capacities such as an AA sponsor or maybe they help them find employment or give them a ride to health appointments. There are a whole host of ways they contribute."

Re-entry is a concept that has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike, including President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Justice and Gov. Charlie Baker here in Massachusetts. Last month, Baker's Public Safety Secretary, Daniel Bennett, met with Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr. a longtime re-entry proponent, to discuss the programs there.

You can even go back as far as the administration of President George W. Bush, who in his 2004 State of the Union address, said, "This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison … America is the land of the second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path should lead to a better life."

Almost all Massachusetts correctional agencies are involved with re-entry programs, some more extensively than others. But wherever you are, re-entry may be something you give your consideration when you're trying to negotiate plea agreements. I recognize that there is a limited amount of influence a defender can have once a sentence is handed down. But just getting a client in the right environment and making him aware of programs he can access could pay dividends for him down the road.

There is an alternative to mandatory sentences!