Massachusetts RISE-ing to the occasion on sentencing reform

A recent federal initiative in Massachusetts offers those charged with a federal crime a chance to redeem themselves-and potentially avoid jail time-through a restorative program that helps rehabilitate defendants who have a criminal history of drug addiction or a background of neglect and disadvantage. The program called Repair, Invest, Succeed, Emerge, or RISE, is a preemptive program that hopes to reduce recidivism, as well as decrease incarceration rates.

Anyone charged with a federal crime in Massachusetts may apply for this program within 90 days of their arrest. Defendants might be eligible for the program if they are on pretrial release and meet either of the following requirements: (1) the defendant has a serious history of substance abuse or addiction that substantially contributed to the commission of the charged offense; or (2) the defendant has a history that reflects significant deficiencies in full-time productive activity or decision making. Defendants charged with child exploitation crimes, white-collar crimes, and/or serious violent crimes (i.e. those who are charged with crimes that cannot be connected to a history of drug abuse or a disadvantaged background) are generally disqualified. Importantly, the defendant must also establish that they would benefit substantially from a structured pretrial program under the close supervision of the Court and U.S. Probation. Although eligibility has been litigated in only a small handful of cases thus far, this last requirement suggests that persons who have a history of violating conditions of probation, either in the state or federal system, may have a difficult time convincing a judge that the RISE program would be effective for them.

Participants who are ultimately enrolled in the RISE program will have to plead guilty and work with the judge to reach an agreement on meeting goals based on their particular situation. Once in the program, participants must attend monthly meetings with a magistrate judge, while also partaking in a restorative justice program that aims to help offenders understand the extent of their crimes and how they affect their victims. An example of this would be a drug dealer being required to talk with doctors about drug overdoses. The program also includes employment or community service opportunities to engender a better work ethic, cognitive/behavioral therapy, and introducing the defendant to new social or peer networks.

Participants will have their sentences delayed for twelve months while they partake in RISE. After twelve months, the federal judge who is working with these offenders and overseeing their case will consider their compliance in the program when determining their sentence. If it is determined that a defendant has found success in the program, they can expect a lighter sentence, probation, or access into another diversion program to help delay, and possibly avoid permanently, their prison sentence.

RISE is seen as a unique program because it brings together prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and the judge into the process of screening applicants and setting their rehabilitation goals. More importantly, this program is a clear effort to shift the emphasis away from long prison sentences (which studies reveal are ineffective at addressing issues that cause drug crimes), and instead to focus on providing opportunities for immediate and long-lasting rehabilitation. This goal is, in some sense, at odds with the prior practice of requiring criminals to participate in rehabilitation programs after being subjected to the sometimes damaging effects of long-term imprisonment. As a result, the idea and hope is that programs like RISE will incentivize and encourage people to seek treatment immediately.

As former prosecutor, sheriff, and long-time criminal defense attorney, I applaud the efforts of those behind the RISE program, its goals, and hopefully, its success. It is certainly another tool that I will be adding to my repertoire in my efforts to get the best results possible for my clients who are eligible, and deserving, of this opportunity.

Read more about RISE here: