A Holistic Approach to Second Chances

My First Visit to Minnesota Reentry Court

by Grace Dodig, PBI Intern

When imagining a courtroom, one word that comes to mind is intimidating. Even as an observer, I can feel my body stiffen when walking into a court. The security guards seem to watch like hawks, the judge presides above you, the attorneys appear cold and stern, and the courtroom itself feels sterile and detached. This reality can leave those participating in and observing court feeling isolated and nervous.

These preconceived notions about what a courtroom is like are anything but true when it comes to the District of Minnesota’s Reentry Court program. Twice a month the courtroom reconfigures itself into a warm, inviting, and supportive environment where formerly incarcerated individuals join a team of prosecutors, federal defenders, mentors, probation officers, and a judge to try and lessen the likelihood of returning to prison.

For formerly incarcerated individuals, this program serves as an alternative for traditional post-conviction supervision. The goal of the program is to reduce recidivism by providing a plethora of resources and people that can aid individuals with their transition back to the community. With 25% of adults in Minnesota returning to prison for a new felony conviction and 50% returning for a technical violation, programs that support successful reentry are much needed.

Pro Bono Institute was introduced to the District of Minnesota Reentry Court program through the Minnesota Collaborative Justice Project (MNCJP), a project of PBI and dozens of organizations in Minnesota to improve the experiences and outcomes of formerly incarcerated individuals in Minnesota, thus enabling them to lead full and productive lives in the community. MNCJP offers pro bono legal assistance on civil matters to participants in Reentry Court and is one of the many programs that engages with and supports Minnesota’s Reentry Court.

As an intern at PBI, I had the opportunity to observe Reentry Court and witness firsthand the comfort and help this program provides its participants. Normally, the Reentry Court team and the program participants would join the judge in the courtroom. They all would convene around one table to establish a feeling of equality, rather than the typical superiority afforded to the judge when they are elevated and presiding over the courtroom. However, due to the pandemic, the meetings are now virtual and, like so many others, the leaders of Reentry Court have made a nearly flawless transition to life online. Instead of gathering around a table, participants and the Reentry Court team meet in gallery view via Zoom.

My visit began with a pre-meeting that the court holds prior to participants joining the Zoom call. For 50 minutes, I listened as the probation officers, prosecutors, public defenders, health professionals, and judges discussed the progress many participants had made, as well as the setbacks some had experienced in the two weeks since the last session. With every bit of good news, there was a celebratory feeling that was tangible, even through the computer screen. With every challenge faced by a participant, there was immediate brainstorming about what to do moving forward. It was clear how important the participants’ success was to those involved with the program. Once Judge Nelson, one of the two judges who spearheaded this program, had been updated on the status of the participants, the mentors joined the call.

Reentry Court mentors are trained members of the community who are there to provide additional support to the participants. Some of the mentors have served time in prison and struggled to adjust once released. Being able to rely on someone who has been where you are is a type of support that cannot be replaced. For the next 10 minutes, the mentors contributed thoughts or updates they had regarding the participants. Once the mentors finished their discussion, the judge admitted the participants onto the Zoom call.

Reentry Court is all about collaboration, which means that all of the participants listen to one another. At one point, a participant was expressing frustration over something they were having trouble with and were wondering what they could do to address the issue. Without a beat, another participant quickly unmuted themself and offered advice. This type of transparent engagement has fostered a feeling of community that is strong. One participant even remarked that the communal aspect of the program helped them realize that they “were not the only one trying to make it.”

Reentry Court consists of four phases, completed over 12-18 months. During the session I attended, the program promoted a participant to the next phase. The look on that person’s face, as well as the faces of their peers and the team, was reason enough to support this program. Another reason is that participants in Reentry Court have a 40 percent lower rate of recidivism in comparison to formerly incarcerated individuals who do not participate in the program.

For far too many years, our justice system has focused on punishment, with the overarching mantra of being “tough on crime.”  But the District of Minnesota’s Reentry Court program is a step in the right direction and should serve as a model for other states moving forward.

Minnesota’s Reentry Court helps formerly incarcerated individuals adjust back into society by addressing not only the direct consequences of imprisonment, but the collateral consequences as well. Collateral consequences are the informal social and civil restrictions people face when returning to the community. Reentry Court aims to provide participants with the support and safety net they need to be successful. The program emphasizes honesty and accountability. In exchange, the program offers substantial resources. The program’s approach is holistic. It does not target one specific difficulty with regards to reentering society. The team makes it their mission to address all the difficulties individuals may face. They offer help with employment, obtention of identification, substance abuse, housing issues, mental health, and general guidance. The Reentry Court team treats participants like human beings that are worthy of a good life; while this may seem like the bare minimum, many aspects of our justice system have dehumanized those with criminal records.

Observing Reentry Court reminded me that everyone shares fundamental desires and struggles, and those who have a criminal record are facing the same issues the rest of us are, but for them, the stakes are higher. I am a second semester senior in college: all of my friends and peers are concerned about job prospects. Many of the participants of Reentry Court were also concerned about job prospects. However, if my friends don’t secure a job, most of them will be okay. They have families and networks to support them. If an individual on parole does not find a job, they may lose their parole eligibility and end up back in prison.

There are many seemingly simple and mundane tasks that many of us complete as a matter of course and with a boatload of help. We take for granted the small things in life, and we never take the time to think about those who are not offered constant help and assistance. Observing Reentry Court, I realized one big difference between myself and the participants is privilege. When you have privilege, a bad day or an unfortunate occurrence is just that. It is one small event in a lifetime of ease. When you don’t have privilege, a broken-down car leads to missing work, which leads to losing your job, which leads to you unable to support yourself, and can often land the formerly incarcerated right back in jail.

People are quick to avoid what is difficult. Sitting in on Reentry Court reminded me of how many people are left behind without a second thought and without help. I think this program forces those in positions of power to look into the eyes of those who have been caught in of our justice system, and I think this country would be a better place if everybody had to look, instead of turning a blind eye.

Grace Dodig is a senior at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who will attend Suffolk University Law School beginning in August 2021.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]