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Author: Emma L. Tiner
Date: Fall 2017
From: Albany Law Review(Vol. 81, Issue 1)
Publisher: Albany Law School
Document Type: Article
Length: 11,345 words
Lexile Measure: 2040L

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Some wore construction vests, others plaid flannels, and one wore a bandana. Tattoos were a common theme. They had come from work, because even court dates did not guarantee a day off. When they were asked to describe their occupations, they were grueling: railroad and construction work. Some of them still had on vests striped with reflective tape. And above all, hanging in the air was an unspoken question: how many times had these men been in a courtroom before?

Maybe they'd even been in this courtroom.

But mercifully lacking were the green jumpsuits, the jangle of chains, and the hovering presence of two probation officers to a man. These men filed into the jury box, not the defendant's seat. They looked sober, but not downtrodden.

Only the judge remained in an unchanged position, the same seat raised above everyone else at the same height as always, treated with the same perennial deference. And, as always, everyone stood when he entered the room.

But what unfolds next, in the Northern District of New York, and what unfolds in other reentry court proceedings across the country, bears little resemblance to a typical hearing or sentencing. In fact, it may be one of the most promising harbingers of change in a system that has too often made judges into grim, omniscient figures who have little involvement in the possibility of felons' recovery. Judges used to have a more hands-on involvement with the felons they convicted, modifying their sentences upon the prisoner's petition, (1) but the practice fell away when "law and order" motivations from the last few decades of the twentieth century led to a more finalistic, draconian approach to sentencing, imprisonment, and release. (2) During a twenty-year period, incarceration rates in the United States skyrocketed, with the number of American prisoners increasing fourfold. (3) Since the vast majority of incarcerated prisoners are eventually released, the number of felons reentering their communities were presented with challenges and stigmas at every turn, even though being a felon had become much more statistically probable. (4) Largely, this trend can be traced to a change in handling drug-related offenses, specifically the now-infamous scheme of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller's policy, which imposed lengthy mandatory sentences for even relatively minor crimes of drug possession. (5) Rockefeller's plan for an offensive attack on drugs was soon adopted and modeled by other states and by the federal government, effectually reshaping the incarceration system across the United States. (6)

In the face of such a grim reality, there has been recent pushback. (7) Reentry courts and programs, modeled after drug courts, (8) are a potential support that has begun to develop in the past few years. (9) Central to the drug court model is the role of "judge as the leader." (10) This aspect of continuity--for in court proceedings, the judge's power is recognized and omnipresent (11)--suggests the possibility that there is something indispensable about the judge as judge. It is a role which, though sometimes weaponized against criminal...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A529516893