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Federal judges help ex-cons live better lives outside of prison

Federal Judge Sara L. Ellis, from left, Judge Susan E. Cox and Jennifer Colanese, a U.S. probation officer, review cases at a meeting of the intensive supervised re-entry program run by the U.S. District Court in Chicago. The program is designed to help ex-cons stay out of prison. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“How do you deal with life when it’s going well?” asked Judge Sara L. Ellis, airing the dilemma of one ex-con adapting to life on the outside. “There was a reduction in the chaos of his life that made him very uncomfortable.”

She was addressing three fellow federal judges — Susan E. Cox, Sidney Schenkier and Chief Judge Ruben Castillo — plus three probation officers, two assistant U.S. attorneys, two federal defenders, and one drug treatment specialist.

It was 9 a.m. Thursday. The group sat around a long table in Castillo’s spacious chambers on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building. The beginning of an extraordinary morning where, every two weeks, the vast, overcrowded, harried, understaffed, often-indifferent, reflexively punitive American legal system pauses for a few hours to turn careful attention to, on this day, 11 long-incarcerated ex-cons — armed robbers, drug dealers — who put their post-prison lives under the supervision of four federal judges.

OPINION

The group trades mundane minutia of fractured lives coming together.

“But he has been writing his poetry . . . .”

“Have him attend 30 meetings in 30 days . . . .”

“He did attend counseling this month, group and individual . . . .”

“He was supposed to meet with me, but didn’t show . . . .”

Its official name is a mouthful: “The James B. Moran Second C.H.A.N.C.E. Program of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.”

It works like this: Felons serve their time and are discharged on probation. Most sink or swim on their own. But a handful join this program, set goals, sign a contract, meeting regularly to talk about their lives and receive access to career counseling, addiction treatment, not to mention compassion and common sense. If they complete the program, their probationary periods are reduced.

A commitment all around. Just as judges do not clamor to volunteer — only four of the district’s 32 judges participate — ex-cons do not leap to join. The judges must go to halfway houses and recruit participants.

About half of the 94 federal districts in the United States have similar intensive supervised reentry programs. Chicago’s was formed in 2010.

The legal team meets for an hour to discusses cases. I kept flashing on over-pressed public defenders flipping through case files as they hurry to the bench, acquainting themselves with the people they are about to represent. This is the exact opposite. Unhurried. Thoughtful. Informed.

Much of the concern by necessity involves weaning cons off their drug habits. In a nation in the grip of an opioid drug epidemic, slashing funding to fight addiction, the link between drugs and criminality shouldn’t be overlooked.

“It is chronic,” said Cox. “Almost everyone I’ve encountered in the criminal justice system, as a prosecutor, as a defense attorney, now as a judge, has had addiction in their life.”

At mid-morning the group breaks up — Cox and Castillo go to one courtroom, Schenkier and Ellis to the other. The participants are waiting. They talk about their lives — a sick father, a relapse. Those doing well are praised, those not doing well are challenged to do better; one is given eight hours in lock-up to reflect.

“They try to build a base for you so you can address issues of your concern, whether employment, education, alcoholism, drug addiction, whatever the situation you feel is detrimental to your staying out,” one participant says. “They do it in a team setting. They help you understand the problem you have, how to address it. They go out of their way to keep you from going back.”

While the program certainly helps ex-cons, it benefits the judges too.

“I deny people bond,” said Cox. “That’s what you’re doing in your normal job. And then you can do this.”

“Emotionally it takes a toll,” added Ellis, of putting people away. “This counterbalances you.”

“As a judge and a citizen I think it’s a sad thing so many people go out and come back. We have this revolving door,” said Schenkier. “If we can have an impact on that, even if modest. To say, ‘This really helped him or her stay out and have a better life.’ You feel awfully good about that.”

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