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Utah, hoping for ‘tangible results’ on recidivism, is looking for possible solutions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A federal judge says he is willing to go a long way to help people from going back to prison. He makes a very long drive to the Navajo Nation in Utah. The goal here is to prevent a very common problem. Almost half of the people who get out of custody in this country run into trouble with the law again. Here's Tilda Wilson from our member station KUER in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAVEL CRUNCHING)

TILDA WILSON, BYLINE: Aneth, Utah, is a tiny town on the Navajo Nation, surrounded by a beautiful landscape of red rocks and desert. On a chilly winter morning, it was just starting to rain at the Aneth Chapter House, a sort of reservation town hall. Today, U.S. magistrate Judge Dustin Pead is holding court here.

DUSTIN PEAD: The district is quite large. We don't have a probation officer located in the area.

T WILSON: Pead drove 6 hours to be here, about 350 miles from the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. He comes down once a month to check in on people under court supervision. In Salt Lake, there's a lot more drug and mental health treatment available to help people when they get out of prison. Out here, those things are hard to come by. Pead says it makes sense that it's so much more difficult to get out of bad patterns of crime. So nine years ago, Pead started bringing court to the reservation, traveling with probation officers, a prosecutor, and a public defender. It's called Tribal Community Re-Entry Court.

PEAD: It would be the first re-entry court that we had heard of that would actually travel to people instead of having people travel to the court.

T WILSON: Pead, the lawyers and probation officers are able to spend face-to-face time building rapport with each supervisee and their loved ones.

PEAD: I want them to have trust that we want them to grow. I'm not waiting to catch them in a violation. So for me, that's frequently calling them by their first name, giving accolades, knowing them, knowing their family, communicating with their family during court.

T WILSON: It's working. The federal court says the recidivism rate has dropped to just 6% for people who participate in the tribal re-entry court. Cordell Wilson is a parole officer who has been working on the Navajo Nation since 2002. He's based 5 1/2 hours away in St. George. He used to only be able to visit people on the Navajo Nation every three months or so, when something went wrong. Now visiting monthly, Wilson says he's able to build trust with the people he works with. He says it works a lot better.

CORDELL WILSON: I would be out there more or less wagging my finger saying, hey, you need to do this.

T WILSON: Wilson says he's able to learn about and help with extenuating circumstances that could be leading to slip-ups in employment or treatment attendance. He's working with people like Brandon Eddie, who was imprisoned for two years after he hit a motorcyclist while driving intoxicated in 2019. Eddie says tribal community re-entry court made him feel like he's on the same team as his judge and probation officer. He laughs talking about his conversations with Wilson.

BRANDON EDDIE: Sometimes it just seems like we're just talking as friends, you know, and then that's when I'm like, well, that's all I got for you today, you know, so...

T WILSON: Eddie has maintained sobriety for all of his probation, has a job and is looking forward to sticking around to raise his four daughters at home on the Navajo Nation. The tribal re-entry court in Utah has been so successful that Wyoming and Arizona have started to implement their own. A senior federal probation officer in Arizona says they're already seeing positive results there.

For NPR News, I'm Tilda Wilson in Aneth, Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tilda Wilson
[Copyright 2024 NPR]