Brendan W. Clark ’21
In the District of Connecticut, the “re-entry court” helps to provide drug offenders with the opportunity for successful re-entry into society. The court, officially the Achievement / Commitment / Trust (ACT) Reentry Court, was brought to the District of Connecticut by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer in 2016 and helped many in their efforts to assimilate life outside of prison. .
Meyer modeled the court on others – including some programs launched in Philadelphia. Court participants, who number between 9 and 10, meet every two weeks to keep their jobs and succeed in re-entering society through honest dialogue and receive regular encouragement from Judge Meyer and others in the justice system.
So far, Meyer added, the voluntary program has had only men, but women “would be welcome”.
“The prison experience is traumatic,” noted Meyer, noting that the experience is one in which his self-esteem is wiped out. “There is rarely a person who can start again without help,” added Meyer. Thus, the re-entry court seeks to fill that gap and provide the necessary moral and human support for those who are released. The court focuses especially on people at risk of recidivism and each session for participants lasts one year.
Often, Meyer told the Tripod, the Courtroom is “very formal and contradictory”: a judge has a higher seat than the defendant, a defendant may be chained and the course of the discussion is focused on punishment. In the re-entry court, all parties – judge, prosecutors, probation officers and ex-convicts – sit at the same level around the lawyers’ tables for a frank discussion about progress and success.
The focus on the scenario is not on retributive justice. Instead, the focus is on rehabilitation and the value of participants as human beings. Meyer, together with the participants, discusses their attempts at employment, continuing work and family life. Often, Meyer added, participants “bring their children and wives with them”, which personalizes the process. This personalization also reminds Meyer of shared humanity, which can often be overlooked in the justice system.
Although Meyer warned that not every story is a success, he spoke to many who achieved a lot as a result of the program. On education, Meyer noted that participants often look for vocational opportunities and, in another instance, enroll in general education programs at local institutions, such as Gateway Community College in New Haven. Most importantly, they still keep track of progress.
What is so critical, he added, is that participants “receive the assertion that they are doing well – that they are succeeding – and that they are not alone”. Too often, Meyer noted, that kind of support and encouragement is absent in a prison environment. Affirmation, added Meyer, is not just a buzzword. It is “what I hear from them … what the program participants cite as fundamental for their re-entry and to improve their self-esteem”, he added.
Meyer mentioned the importance of the court and the profound impact it can have on all constituents of the federal judiciary. This statement, Meyer continued, reverberates between the two groups of participants. For prosecutors, probation officers and institutional actors, the recognition that each participant is a person becomes clearer as a result of participating in the program. “It helps us improve our jobs,” added Meyer, noting that the program reminds those in the criminal justice system of the real goal: rehabilitation.
Recognizing justice and participants as individuals, as people, is something Meyer strives to embrace in his judicial career, which included internships for James L. Oakes of 2WL Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Judge Harry Blackmun, who were both “big-hearted men” who recognized “justice at the individual level”.
The reentry court, for Meyer, “makes me a much better judge” when he can understand some of the things these men have been fighting against. “In the abstract, we can say that we understand,” Meyer noted, but listening to the stories and being part of their feedback process makes all the difference.
For now, with the pandemic, the reentry court has moved to Zoom and, Meyer added, he “is not happy about it” and looking forward to the day when personal interaction can return. The court regularly holds a graduation ceremony for participants where, once again, relations are central: it is not a space where “high legal doctrine dominates”, Meyer added, but “about humanizing the justice system”.
This interview – the second in a series of articles in the Tripod‘S “Lawyer’s Corner”, by editor-in-chief Brendan Clark ’21 – examines the legal field, involving experienced professionals who have had a significant impact in their respective areas of practice.