Monday, Mar 28, 2011
Ex-cons get help keeping out of crime and on the job
By MARK MORRIS
The Kansas City Star
Alice Maurer is a 26-year-old whirlwind of shiny optimism. She smiles easily and is a fountain of upbeat aphorisms, the kind you’d expect from a former aerobics instructor.
“A dream is only a dream without a plan,” she said. “You have to put a plan behind it to make it a reality.”
Or this one: “The good thing about a problem is that in order to be called a problem, there has to be a solution.”
Not exactly what you’d expect from a woman who, not long ago, finished 37 months in federal prison for distributing methamphetamine.
Maurer is one of the star pupils of a year-old federal court program in Kansas City that seeks to help former offenders who are at high risk of returning to prison.
Under the direction of U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith, a team of probation officers, lawyers and service providers intensely focus on a group of 20 or so probationers, doing everything within reason to keep them sober, employed and crime-free.
In exchange, the participants can have years shaved off of their probation.
The work is difficult, said Kim Grace, a senior federal probation officer. Probationers have tested positive for drugs, missed counseling sessions and failed to find employment.
The larger consequences couldn’t be more serious: Be part of the two-thirds of all federal probationers who successfully manage their lives and do not return to prison or join the 33 percent who do.
Successes such as Maurer keep everybody going, Grace said.
Maurer, a certified paralegal, is now running the billing software for an automotive accessories warehouse in Kansas City, Kan., a job that will end soon. She hopes to get on with a law firm, doing the kind of legal work that she trained to do through a correspondence course at an Illinois federal prison.
“Go figure,” Maurer said with a laugh. “I found what I was good at. It intrigues me because of my criminal background.”
Though nothing ever is assured for a former offender returning to society, her work through the federal re-entry court has given her a new perspective and some powerful advocates.
For example, she may be the only federal ex-con walking around western Missouri with a personal recommendation from a federal judge on her resume.
“I don’t do that for everybody,” Smith said.
The trust factor
Not everybody gets excited about attending federal re-entry court, which meets twice a month in a huge, wood-paneled courtroom. Stern oil paintings of retired judges stare down at more than a dozen former offenders seated in the jury box.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Smith sent his first re-entry court participant away in handcuffs for testing positive for marijuana use. Another man narrowly missed the same fate — a couple of days in jail — for the same transgression. However, he had attended job counseling as ordered.
“The very foundation of a relationship with me is trust,” Smith said. “There are other responses to stress rather than going back to the habits you had before.”
Maurer used her time before the judge to talk about her own recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, on which she elaborated later in an interview.
Maurer began using drugs when she was about 13 and dropped out of school a couple of years later. By 17, juvenile offenses had landed her in group homes a couple of times. Maurer’s first daughter arrived when she was 18.
“My life was complete chaos, with drugs, alcohol and relationships,” Maurer said. “I had a real chip on my shoulder.”
On July 25, 2005, a friend of Maurer’s — working as an informant for Kansas City Police Department — purchased an ounce of meth from her boyfriend. The informant handed over $1,400, which Maurer dutifully counted.
Two days later, Maurer was charged in federal court. She pleaded guilty six months later and faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.
All the while, Maurer was living in denial.
“I was angry about it,” she said. “I blamed everyone but myself. It was the guy who set us up. It was everyone but me.”
Melanie Morgan, Maurer’s lawyer, sensed her client’s confusion.
“She never saw herself as being a wrongdoer,” Morgan said. “She couldn’t accept for a period of time that she had a role in what happened.”
That realization came in January 2007, just before she reported to the federal prison in Pekin, Ill., to begin serving her five-year sentence. Leaving home for the last time, she paused for a moment with her children.
“That day, when I got up and kissed my daughters goodbye, I realized I made the choices that led me to this,” she recalled.
Her youngest girl was a little more than a year old.
A bigger picture
If some go to prison and hone their criminal skills, Maurer used the time to think and grow. And like many who wonder what is ahead, she read, “What Color Is Your Parachute?” a popular career guide.
“When I got there, I started true introspection,” Maurer said. “What led me to where I was at? I decided to take advantage of the time I had been given.”
According to prison records, she worked in a food service warehouse and took a host of vocational courses, including computer assisted design, accounting, budgeting and real estate.
She joined a program that allowed her to speak with civic groups and troubled juvenile offenders about her experience. She also developed a spiritual side that allowed her to step outside her immediate situation and learn from her experiences.
“There is always a bigger picture,” Maurer said. “There is always a meaning to the things that happen in your life.”
After two years, she transferred to a federal institution in Greenville, Ill., which allowed her to work as an aerobics instructor and, more importantly, participate in a 500-hour residential drug treatment program that gave her tools she’d need to stay clean once she was released.
Maurer successfully finished her drug treatment and earned all of her good conduct time, so the Bureau of Prisons released her in 2010 after serving 37 months of her 60-month sentence.
Her first job — waitressing at Denny’s — came 13 days later, and before long she was managing a sandwich shop. She said she understands teenagers and manages their drama pretty well.
She also began seeing a counselor who gave her some advice on dealing with drugs and relationships that she repeats today, and occasionally hears from the judge at their twice-a-month meetings.
“ ‘No’ is a complete answer.”
Re-starting life with a new perspective hasn’t been easy, Maurer acknowledged. Reconnecting with her children has been rewarding, but she had to make some difficult choices about old friends.
“When I got out, I had made a lot of changes,” she said. “I had assumed that the people I knew before had made changes too. That was a misconception. I’ve had to cut ties. And when you’ve known people all your life, that’s a tough thing to do.”
Maurer said the federal re-entry court has allowed her to lean on others when decisions become difficult and her own determination begins to flag. She understands that her probation officer and the others helping her are holding her accountable, not being her friends.
“You have to be open to accepting help from people you never thought would help you,” she said.
Grace, the probation officer, said the success of the re-entry court shouldn’t be judged completely by exceptional participants such as Maurer.
Rather, it should be evaluated by others who fail a little more often and need more help, but still pull together successful, law-abiding lives after prison.
“The thing with Alice is that she’s eager to work with us and eager to hear what we have to say,” Grace said. “We do that with everyone, but everyone isn’t willing to bite. The hard work is for the individuals who aren’t quite trusting of us yet.”