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VOL. 126 | NO. 133 | Monday, July 11, 2011



New Chances

Re-entry Court provides second opportunities for federal offenders

By Bill Dries

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Sean Summerall was late. He had a sick child to take to a doctor. There was little time to worry about the day’s schedule or getting dressed up. Recovering somewhat, he almost made the bus transfer to get Downtown but not quite.

Finally at his destination, he made his way through the metal detectors, up an elevator and into the courtroom of federal Judge Bernice Donald. This was not the entrance she had expected.

“Tell us why you were late,” Donald said. “Take your hands out of your pocket – stand up straight.”

Summerall was late for re-entry court, a recent program in Memphis federal court for those convicted of and who have served time for felonies.

Most of those convicted in Memphis federal court get something else when they get a prison sentence. They get usually two to three years of “supervised release” once they are out of prison. Before sentencing, there is a thorough and confidential report that maps out the offender’s life from birth to the present.

Supervised release means an offender still reports regularly to U.S. Probation officers for interviews to see how they are making it outside prison and depending on the offense to be drug tested or undergo some other specific requirement of the supervised release period.

Re-entry court puts a federal judge, appointed by the president of the United States for life, into the mix along with the continuing presence of probation officers.

“You are, for better or for worse, still a convicted felon. You are serving a sentence,” Donald told Yolanda Martin and Lisa Davis, two other federal offenders in the program whose re-entry is also being supervised by Donald. And she pointed out that the group of three had started out with seven.

She repeated that for Summerall, once he arrived, after asking if he had practiced the speeches and phrases she wrote out for him to practice in front of a mirror before job interviews.

The public case files of Davis, Martin and Summerall tell grim stories that underscore just how difficult it is for a variety of reasons for someone coming out of prison to avoid returning there.

The Justice Department tracked 272,111 people released from federal prison over several years. Two thirds of them – 67.5 percent – were rearrested within three years, according to the 2009 study. Nearly a third – 29.9 percent – were rearrested within six months.

Davis works at a day care center but not with children – “I’m like a handy person,” she said.

Davis, who now works 12-hour days and has plans to own her own business cleaning houses, pleaded guilty to a drug charge in 2003 and was sentenced to nine years, two months in prison.

Martin was one of eight people indicted on federal fraud charges in 2007.

The group stole drivers’ licenses and other forms of identification as well as checkbooks from the mail and car break-ins and forged checks to Target and Walmart stores on multi-state shopping sprees. They would then return the merchandise to the stores for a cash refund.

The Justice Department tracked 272,111 people released from federal prison over several years. Two thirds of them – 67.5 percent – were rearrested within three years, according to the 2009 study. Nearly a third – 29.9 percent – were rearrested within six months.

Her attorney withdrew from the case because she “failed repeatedly to make and keep office appointments” making is “impossible” to represent her. A motion called it a “total lack of cooperation.”

She pleaded guilty in March 2008 to a conspiracy charge and was sentenced to two years and two months in prison.

Martin has been doing flower arrangements and learning how the floral business works. Her goal, at least for now, is to own a florist shop and thus become the person on the other side of the counter from the customer presenting a check or a credit card.

Martin and Davis may end up changing their goals either by choice or by necessity.

Greta Hunter of the YWCA of Greater Memphis works with employers trying to place ex-offenders in jobs as well as others who come through the YWCA’s 20-year-old economic empowerment training program.

Sometimes whole job categories are off limits to offenders or those with a certain kind of offense on their records. Hunter works with Flextronics, a firm that repairs computers.

“When you are talking about components that can be worth a lot of money, they just cannot risk taking on an ex-offender who may have a theft conviction,” she said. “But on the electrical side, where sometimes individuals might be working on a job site, they’re working outside, it’s construction, it’s laborious work. Some of those contractors will take a risk.”

Summerall, who is 30 years old, has pinned his hopes on that. His child who got sick is one of eight and Summerall says being there for them is his primary motivation for ending a spiral that began when he was a juvenile. His first year as an adult, he was in state prison on a felony theft conviction.

He had been smoking pot for four years already. While he was serving his time, Summerall took a 12-step program to stop his marijuana use. He also took parenting classes and got his GED diploma.

Memphis police officers with the Organized Crime Unit were in the Patton Place Apartments in April 2008 investigating complaints of drug sales in the complex. Two of the officers saw Summerall walk up to a car that was parked in front of the complex and it looked like a drug deal. They approached him and saw him “clutch his front waistband.”

“When you are talking about components that can be worth a lot of money, they just cannot risk taking on an ex-offender who may have a theft conviction. But on the electrical side, where sometimes individuals might be working on a job site, they’re working outside, it’s construction, it’s laborious work. Some of those contractors will take a risk.”

– Greta Hunter, YWCA of Greater Memphis

He had the gun and tried to stuff it down his pants. They saw it fall down his pants leg and took the 9 mm semiautomatic pistol from him.

About a month later, on May 14, Summerall got into a three-way gunfight on East Fernwood Avenue, according to witnesses. Police found him at 122 E. Davant Ave. with a gunshot wound to the leg. Summerall claimed he walked into the middle of a gunfight between two other men.

In August 2009, Donald sentenced him to two and a half years in prison. Before the sentencing, Summerall and his federal public defender submitted the certificates for the prison programs he had completed. He was already enrolled in similar programs in federal prison as he was awaiting sentencing.

When he got out, Summerall thought about a warehouse job but changed his mind as he began looking for training programs on his own.

“That put the task on me to meet that effort,” Summerall told Donald.

He found the YWCA program and began attending classes. He needed a sponsor to start an apprenticeship as an electrician, a coveted start in the profession even for those with no criminal record.

The YWCA has that kind of infrastructure, which is necessary to get those leaving prison into the workplace. It’s not easy and it’s not conventional, Hunter said.

“When we try to place jobs for them it’s out of relationships,” she said. “AT&T comes to our graduations. They will sit and will look at the individuals that we are training. … Placement is really not the traditional way.”

A federal conviction and prison term doesn’t seem to carry a greater stigma than a state conviction and prison term in Hunter’s view.

“I have not seen a company yet that came back to me and said, ‘This is a county or a state or a federal. I’m OK with this one over that one,’” she said. “The companies in the area have all been very strict about who they can hire regardless of the court.”

The job training work is not new for the YWCA or the U.S. Probation Office. But the teaming of them is. So is the spotlight in open court on what the probation officers tell the offenders whom they see and talk with more often than a judge.

“You hang in there,” probation officer Gloria Simpson told Martin. “If the judge says to be on time, that’s critical. You know what you have going against you. I have your self-interest. Work with me.”

The new element is a federal judge seeing an offender on probation for something that isn’t a violation of the terms of their post-prison release.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Tauber has studied the concept and been a part of the national discussion for 20 years as judge of Oakland’s drug court, which began in 1990. He also works as a consultant on such efforts.

He counts 36 federal re-entry court programs currently across the country compared to four in 2004.

“I think whether you are in a state court or a federal court, people coming back from prison, especially, but also from jail, pay attention to judges for obvious reasons,” he said.

Tauber considers re-entry courts a close relative of drug courts with the difference being a drug court works with a defendant whose fate hasn’t been fully decided.

“I think that this is where we were going even though we didn’t know it when we started drug court,” Tauber said.

Summerall got a bit of a dressing down from Donald who thought his progress has slipped a bit. But before she adjourned re-entry court, she and the others presented him with a new red tool bag to get him started on his journey as an electrician.

“People are doing this because they believe in you,” Donald said as Summerall held the bag. “We do believe that people should not be judged by the worst mistake they’ve ever made.”

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PROPERTY SALES 109 433 13,330
MORTGAGES 114 591 17,349
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 11 93 3,391
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