By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
Charles Dudley Warner, a friend of Mark Twain, famously remarked in 1873: “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
People often express similar feelings about the prison system. When crime and punishment are debated, usually there are competing interests at heart: justice and mercy, society’s security and personal rehabilitation.
When 24th Judicial District Court Judge Scott Schlegel, a former Jefferson Parish prosecutor who had handled thousands of criminal cases, first heard about the “Re-Entry Court,” he was fascinated.
The prospect of actually doing something to slow the revolving prison door started in Orleans Parish in 2010 under Judges Arthur Hunter and Laurie White, before being picked up by Jefferson Parish in 2013.
Their idea was simple: As a last chance, carefully vetted prisoners convicted of non-violent, non-sex offenses, who could have been sentenced to serve anywhere from 10 years to life, could serve their time instead elbow-to-elbow with those sentenced to life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
The Angola lifers are not randomly chosen as mentors. They have gone through radical conversions after years in prison and completing coursework with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“These are lifers who could tell the men, ‘I know why I’m here, but I’ve changed my heart. This is my way of giving back to the community,’” said Schlegel, a 1995 graduate of Jesuit High School. “They spend 24/7 with these guys, pouring into their hearts and just loving on them and letting them know what it means to be a man and how to be a better father, a better husband, a better son, a better person.”
At Angola, the “Smart on Crime Initiative” includes substance abuse counseling – “that’s one of the biggest difficulties we have,” Schlegel says – and then hands-on training in 14 different trades, including auto repair, welding, horticulture, HVAC and generators installation.
“And these are not just jailhouse certifications,” Schlegel said. “These are industry-recognized certifications. So, after about two years, when they have done everything and Angola says they are ready to come home, they petition the court to re-enter our community.”
It is Schlegel’s job to approve or deny those petitions. When he says yes, the men are placed on five years of active probation, where, according to a strict schedule of weekly drug tests, they meet with the judge on Wednesday mornings as a way of checking on their progress. They also are required to meet regularly with a licensed professional counselor, a probation officer and their assigned mentor, usually a community volunteer who has agreed to serve in that capacity for at least two years.
“We require that there be a two-year commitment because they’ve been let down so many times in their life,” Schlegel said. “We don’t want another broken relationship – so that when it gets tough, you walk away.”
One of those volunteer mentors is Jackie Appleton, 71, who spent 17 years as the business manager at St. Angela Merici Parish in Metairie before retiring in 2013 to care for her ailing husband Bennie, who died in November 2017.
Appleton is a convert. When she and Bennie were married in 1972, she began taking instructions in the Catholic faith from a transitional deacon named Greg Aymond, the future archbishop of New Orleans. She entered the church at the 1973 Easter Vigil, making her first Communion with then-pastor Msgr. John Favalora, the future archbishop of Miami.
Appleton now is an extraordinary minister at St. Catherine of Siena, volunteers at The Rebuild Center for the homeless and at Padua House, a Catholic Charities program for those with severe developmental disabilities.
And, now, she is a mentor to a 30-year-old, former prisoner named Mark. It’s not often that a woman is a mentor to a man, but there are fewer men “stepping up to the plate” to serve as mentors, Appleton said.
“Before his death, Bennie and I talked, and he was concerned about two things – leaving me alone and what would happen to me after my death,” Appleton said, laughing about how she has lived out her Catholic vocation as, essentially, a full-time volunteer. “When I first heard about the two-year commitment, I said, ‘Wait, I’m 71, and I’m giving you a two-year commitment?’ I guess if I die, the commitment will be fulfilled.”
Mark, who has a 5-year-old daughter, was recently released from Angola. He lives with his parents and has a job fixing and installing generators. It’s Mark’s responsibility to arrange for transportation to and from his job.
“He was hired by this company, and by the end of the second or third week, they were giving him one of the company’s vehicles to drive,” Appleton said. “I told Mark, ‘Do you realize how big that is?’ Before I started mentoring him, he told me about attending his company’s Christmas party where everyone was drinking, and he felt a little uncomfortable because he couldn’t. I told him, ‘Just grab a Coke and put some lemon in the glass and no one will know the difference.”
Schlegel believes the Re-entry Court and another program, Swift and Certain (SAC) Probation, will produce drastically lower recidivism rates and save incredible amounts of money that would otherwise be spent locking people up.
The national recidivism rate five years after release is 76.6 percent; in Louisiana, that figure is 42.6 percent. Those who enter the SAC program are “high-risk, high-need” individuals who are provided treatment, support and other monitoring, with the court having a streamlined process to make sure they are complying.
The program is still relatively new, but Schlegel says it works. “With just 48 people, I saved the state of Louisiana $180,000 last year with much better outcomes from a public-safety viewpoint,” he said.
Part of the plan includes making available Uber rides for the men – they would pay for the service – in case they have car trouble making it to work, to drug tests or to court.
“When I get a flat tire, I can call AAA or American Express and they can fix my car and I’m at work one hour later,” Schlegel said. “What happens to these individuals is they sit on the road, they have to walk to work, they don’t get there, they lose their job, the car gets towed because it’s sitting on the side of the road, they miss paying the rent and they get kicked out. It’s a cycle.”
Schlegel said that cycle has often tested his Christian faith.
“That’s the focus of my life – everything I do is to serve Christ,” Schlegel said. “It’s all about redemption and holding people accountable and caring. We’re all going to be held accountable. This is not soft on crime – this is smart on crime. How do we do a better job protecting our community and showing everybody that we care? It’s insanely complicated. But if you want to make the fiscal argument, I win; the human-toll argument, I win; the public-safety argument, I win.”
Appleton said she never envisioned doing anything like this until she saw a notice about it in the St. Catherine of Siena Parish bulletin. A group, which includes business owners who have jobs to offer the soon-to-be-released men, will take a bus ride to Angola Feb. 15 to learn more about the re-entry program.
“We all have made mistakes in life, and God has forgiven us,” Appleton said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ll do anything I can to support these men.”
For information about the Re-Entry Court, call 364-3876.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.