By Liza Fleming and Diana Joskowicz; edited by John Basenfelder.
Tim Rice is a former newspaper reporter whose wife put him through law school while raising their three daughters. He attended Temple Law School, where he served as editor-in-chief of Temple Law Review from 1985–86, and later worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney handling criminal prosecutions for nearly twenty years. He currently serves as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Philadelphia and as an adjunct professor at Temple Law School. Together, Judge Rice and Judge Felipe Restrepo created the Supervision to Aid Re-entry Program. STAR is a yearlong program that assists former inmates with finding jobs, housing, and acquiring an education. The program has been successful in reducing recidivism in Philadelphia and has served as a model for similar programs throughout the country.
Read the full interview here.
TLR: The STAR re-entry program is your baby. And it is getting some pretty high recognition. Could you tell us a little about your idea to start it, the structure of it, and how it has progressed so far?
JR: The idea to start it actually came from one of my former colleagues, another prosecutor who had just retired, Maureen Barden. And so when we launched it, it just so happened I was a judge so I could give her a platform for it because she was having difficulty getting some of the state courts to consider the idea. So I was able to use my position to present the idea to the judges who were gracious enough to let us to it. And it has been kind of a beautiful experience all around. You know for me, it’s kind of like full circle because I spent eighteen years as a prosecutor. And now I’m on the backend of the system after people come out of jail trying to help them rebuild their lives. So you get to see all aspects of the criminal justice system from cradle to grave almost.
TLR: You have worked the full spectrum of the process.
JR: And yeah so I think most people, I was one of them, don’t really have an appreciation for the challenges people face when they get out of prison, especially after lengthy prison terms of seven, eight, ten, twenty, thirty years in prison—the challenges, trying to rebuild your life, trying to reconnect with your family, find a place to live, get little things like a driver’s license. Especially now with the technology that didn’t exist twenty or thirty years ago, and if you’re coming out of prison you don’t have all these gadgets that all you guys have grown up with since you were children.
TLR: At re-entry court, people often discuss their experiences being back in their neighborhood and how difficult that can be.
JR: That’s probably one of the biggest challenges because there’s a lot of people in the neighborhood who still want to pull these guys, and there’s some women who have gone through the program as well, pull them back into that life because they’re jealous. They see them succeeding in society and they want them back doing bad things. And it’s hard because sometimes that’s an easier path to take. But we’ve launched a couple initiatives to help them with that. We have a program with Philadelphia Housing Authority, where we get them Section 8 low income housing vouchers which are very difficult to get but the Housing Authority has been generous enough to set some aside for people in our re-entry court. And if you have a Section 8 housing voucher you can take that voucher to any landlord, almost in the country, and find affordable housing in a good neighborhood. So you can remove your family from that environment that is causing negative problems for you.
TLR: That’s huge for some people.
JR: Oh, it’s been an enormous blessing. The director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, Calvin Jeremiah has really embraced the idea and the board of the Housing Authority has really been progressive. It is the first program like it in the country.
TLR: It seems like the program focuses a lot more on rehabilitation than the retribution that you see coming out of the court system. Do you think that was a motivation to get involved?
JR: Yeah, I think just more of a way to help people get their lives back together. The nature of the system is such that at sentencing there are different focuses. There is a need for deterrence at sentencing, there’s a need for punishment. Depending on the case and which one of those takes precedence, there is a need to address the concerns of the crime victims. There is a need for some rehabilitation, but by the time these people have completed their sentences, the only thing that matters is rehabilitation. Because they’ve already been punished, they’ve already been deterred, and most of them, if not all of them, realize that they were not doing positive things in the community. In fact, I’ve had some re-entry graduates come to me and ask me if I could help them meet with their crime victims so they could express remorse. So there is a whole restorative justice element to this that we are starting to see that gives these men and women a chance to come to terms with themselves and come to terms with how they want to be seen in the community now as opposed to their prior life when they were committing armed robberies, selling drugs, or shooting people.
TLR: Have you ever been able to facilitate any of those meetings with former victims?
JR: It just happened recently. In this case we couldn’t do it with the victims because they were too traumatized and it would open new wounds. But what we did was have the re-entry graduate go around with the prosecutor to community groups to talk to other victims about his remorse, how he’s turned his life around, and how he feels like he could never do that again because he couldn’t imagine something like that happening to his own mother. So we have done it and the restorative justice experts say sometimes it’s better to do it with other victims than those victims, especially with a case like sexual assault where it may be hard for the sexual assault victim to face the person. Or an armed robbery. It might be easier to listen to someone else who you don’t have a direct link to express remorse. It’s a complicated thing, but the beauty of the criminal justice system now is that everyone’s open to it. I think the greatest thing about the re-entry program is the broad-based support it enjoys with the bar, the courts, in law enforcement, in the defense bar, and in prosecutors’ offices. Everybody agrees that it’s a good idea. Ten years ago we started it, and that was not the case. I was criticized by some of my colleagues saying that it is not an appropriate use of judicial authority, that it diminishes the prestige of the judiciary. And now, the conventional wisdom is that it’s a good thing.
TLR: It seems like everyone is on board.
JR: Yeah, and I think the results help convince people when they see people who have spent most of their life in and out of prison for ten or twenty years, and now they are positive family members with jobs in our community making it a better place. I think the results speak for themselves.
TLR: What other aspects of the program are there? You mentioned housing, but also you help them get jobs and help them take care of other expenses. Could you talk a little more about that?
JR: We utilize law students for a tremendous amount of things to help them. Law students are certified to appear in court, in traffic court, and in family court to help them address issues like license restoration, delinquent traffic tickets, and fines. Family law issues such as custody disputes, visitation, and things like that. We have an enormous amount of resources to help them with job training, job skills, and employer connections. It’s all been through the bar and various community groups. One of the most exciting things we are doing is right down the street at Strawberry Mansion at 32nd and Diamond. We are working with a Quaker group to rehabilitate abandoned housing. We use the people in the re-entry court to do the work. They are trained in construction skills. It helps them get a job down the line. So it gives them a job, it teaches them a skill, and we’re fixing up a neighborhood. So, a lot of positives.
TLR: Do you keep in touch with past graduates of the program and have you seen them form their own groups together?
JR: Yeah, in fact last re-entry session I think I had five or six graduates come back voluntarily after work. Five guys came back just to say hello and tell everybody how well they’re doing. It’s a great role model for the younger guys who are just coming in to see the success of people who have gone through the program, and how well they’ve done. And then they come back just to say hello. So it’s a great thing, and we have a great network of alumni. In fact, a lot of our graduates help the other guys get jobs.
TLR: Are there a few memorable graduates that took the program so seriously and that you were surprised at how well they did?
JR: A lot of them did that. I think the more memorable ones are the ones that you think are doing well, but fail. It’s just so traumatic for us as a re-entry team when somebody we think is on the right path commits a serious crime, and you realize they are probably never going to come out of prison. And they had such potential, and they had so many things going for them. But yeah, one of our graduates went through the program twice. He was arrested while he was in re-entry court, did several months in prison, asked to come back, and we let him back. He’s really been remarkable. He’s now working in the court system through the Third Circuit for Judge McKee, whose daughter is a former editor of [Temple Law Review]. He did a marvelous thing and created a job for a re-entry participant in the courthouse. So here’s somebody who used to come into the courthouse in handcuffs who now comes in through the front door in a shirt and tie working for the Third Circuit.
TLR: What exactly are the criteria to get into the program? Is there a certain number of prior convictions or type of conviction that you look for?
JR: Our program, when we created it in 2006, Philadelphia had the highest homicide rate in the country. So we decided to try to do something to address that. So our program is geared toward people with a history of or a serious risk of violent crime. So if you committed a white-collar offense, or a one-time offense, you’re not eligible for the program. You also have to be a resident of the city of Philadelphia because that’s where we identified the problem we wanted to address. So in order to get in the program, you have to have a significant criminal history or because of family or social issues, face a serious risk that you’re going to go back into that life.
TLR: Have you made any changes to the program over the years since it’s been in place?
JR: We try to go with what’s called evidence-based practices. In the criminal justice world, things that evidence establishes work to help reduce recidivism. I’ll give you one example that we didn’t know about when started, which we do now. A program called cognitive behavioral therapy, which is called “Thinking for a Change.” The participants go to sessions with trained facilitators or counselors to think about problem solving and how to address certain things. For example, if somebody knocked your phone off the table, your first impulse might be to pick it up and say, “Why did you do that? Don’t do it again.” And if it gets to be a confrontation, you’d walk away. Somebody who was not raised in the way you were raised, their first impulse might be to take out a gun and shoot the person. So we try to talk through with the participants other options. And the guys have come back and told us that they’ve used that in their day-to-day lives just in terms of avoiding confrontation and avoiding escalation of confrontation. So a lot of things I think most of us were taught, some of these folks came from broken families, single parents, no parents, drug-addicted parents, and they didn’t have the opportunities to learn those kinds of problem-solving skills.
TLR: Do you think a bigger challenge is trying to get through to the participants, or outside variables that you just don’t have any control over?
JR: I think the initial challenge at the beginning is establishing credibility because remember, the last time our re-entry participant was in court facing a judge they had their hands behind their back with handcuffs, and they were going away. So the biggest challenge is establishing to the participant that this is going to be a different experience. I have a different role. I’m not here to punish you. I’m not here to deal with your past. I’m here to help you build your future. So establishing credibility is I think the biggest challenge we face. But now that we’ve been doing it for almost ten years, I think we have a track record. And having the graduates come back voluntarily and telling these people, hey this is a great program, and if you don’t embrace it you are missing a great opportunity to change your life.
TLR: Did you have any specific goals when you started the program that you wanted to accomplish that you feel you may have achieved?
JR: Our goal was to reduce the number of people going back to prison at first. I think now it has evolved into that along with equally important goals of helping people build their life back up. Helping people find a decent place to live. Helping people deal with obstacles such as expungement of criminal charges that were dismissed or not guilty that are still on their record. We deal with a group of lawyers here in Philadelphia that does expungements and remove acquitted conduct or dismissed conduct from their record. And that can have a really negative impact when you go for a job interview. If an employer sees one federal conviction, that’s one thing. If he sees like twelve criminal arrests for things that were never convictions, that can have a really negative impact.
TLR: And employers can see criminal arrests when they do a criminal background check even if the accused was acquitted?
JR: Yes. So if those are expunged from the record it makes your employment profile a little less threatening.
TLR: Can you talk about how the program has served as a model for other jurisdictions and you interactions with them?
JR: I think when we started in 2006 and 2007 there were four of these types of courts. There were a lot of drug courts, and there were a lot of similar models in the state court system. But there weren’t a lot in the federal system. Primarily based on the fact that nobody had gotten all the players together and said that we have to do something to address the problem of recidivism. Like our population in the city: 50% of them who would go through would be back in jail. If you graduate from our program, the rate drops to 11%. So that’s kind of the main thing was to try to reduce the criminal recidivism.
We started as one of four. There are now almost sixty or seventy nationwide. A lot of districts have come in and watched and tweaked our model to whatever their needs are. Our program was roughly based on a program that a federal judge in Boston, Judge Sorokin, did in a drug court, so we kind of used a drug court as our model to start our re-entry court.
TLR: Have you advised other jurisdictions on how to set these courts up?
JR: Oh yeah. We’ve been working most recently with Southern District of Florida, which is Miami. They’re going to start a program like ours. But we’ve had dozens of different jurisdictions come in, and we’ve tried to help them set it up.
TLR: Do you see the program expanding nationally?
JR: I think it already has. The Attorney General has come to our program and said this is a national model that he wants implemented nationwide. The President, when he was in Philadelphia, met with one of our graduates. He praised him for what he did to rebuild his life and recognized the need for these. So it’s a bipartisan support from Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals. It seems to be a common denominator for a lot of people.
TLR: At this point in the program do you have any specific hopes for the future or things that you want to achieve as its moving forward?
JR: I’d like to expand it. We’ve been doing it for nine or ten years now. I think we’ve had about 260 people go through. I think if we could expand it it’s better because more people could benefit from it. I’d like to see the housing program we discussed in Strawberry Mansion expanded because I think that’s a huge social benefit because you’re restoring a blighted neighborhood, and you’re teaching a person a craft, and then creating a future for them with good jobs. So it hits a lot of the bases of helping to make Philadelphia a better place.
TLR: Do you foresee the Strawberry Mansion project becoming housing for the participants?
JR: It already is. The Quaker group, it’s called the Friends Rehabilitation Program, and they manage and create affordable housing for elderly, handicapped, single moms, AIDS victims, ex-offenders. One of the great stories is that one of our re-entry graduates who worked on the unit as a construction worker is now living in it with one of the Section 8 housing vouchers from the Housing Authority.
TLR: And he worked on it?
JR: He worked on it. So he actually renovated an abandoned house that he now lives in.
TLR: Finally, what is the one piece of advice you would give someone in law school? Like what exactly they should be doing from here on out and how they can take full advantage of Temple.
JR: I think Temple is a special place because the student body is so diverse, not necessarily just in terms of racial or ethnic, but also by age, gender, and different backgrounds. I think if people take the time to embrace all the fellow students, you can learn a lot from your fellow students. It was a very positive experience for me, and everyone in our class got along. The law review people got along with the moot court people. The National Lawyers Guild people got along with the Federalists. The Brehons got along with the Justinians. It was just a marvelous time, and I hope everyone that’s here now has the great experience I had.
Are you a TLR alumna or alumnus? Reach out to TLR at firstname.lastname@example.org.