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‘I’m back and there ain’t no stopping me.’ Strict court program aims to reduce repeat offenders

Could he stick with a rigorous program that could shave years off his prison sentence? It was a question Dionte Borges, 37, faced every day during a demanding special court program to help with the transition home. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Dionte Borges was looking forward to Florida.

The judge overseeing his probation had authorized the work trip, noting that Borges had been doing “exceptionally well” in reentry court and as long as he stayed on track, he’d be free to travel.

But two weeks after it had been approved, the trip was in jeopardy.

“I had no intentions on missing the urine test,” Borges said, telling the judge that he didn’t make one of his regular drug screenings because of a funeral. “I didn’t have transportation . . . it was family there and I really wasn’t trying to leave.”

“What time was the burial over?” Judge Lawrence V. Hill Jr. asked as a roomful of lawyers sat silently during the tense exchange. “You couldn’t get anyone to take you? What effort did you make?”

Borges knew he had to take regular, random drug tests no matter what, Hill said. He should have had plans in place to adjust or call his case worker. Now Borges risked losing the trip and his graduation from reentry court. The setback could bind him to six additional months of court hearings and drug tests.

“Have a seat in the back of the courtroom,” Hill said as he weighed Borges’s fate. “You’re not doing yourself any favors.”

In most jurisdictions, Borges would not have been going toe to toe with a judge. He would have been in the eighth year of a 15-year prison sentence for assault and theft involving cabdrivers. But Borges got a second chance through Prince George’s County Re-Entry Court, one of only two programs like it in Maryland.

A program that started in 2013, Re-Entry Court allows those convicted of crimes to leave prison early under supervision. They’re treated for dependencies and mental health issues while learning life skills and behavior management, and receiving job training.

A second chance for a convicted killer

In addition to requiring curfews, drug checks and regular appearances before a judge, the program aims to keep people out of prison and help them reshape their lives. Re-Entry Court staff members teach participants to read, help them obtain high school equivalencies and offer advice on building bonds with estranged relatives.

“A lot of times they return from prison, and the decks are stacked against them,” said Mark Tynes, a case manager for the special court. “Our program gives them a chance to be as successful as they possibly can be.”

Growing up in Northeast Washington, Borges never imagined he’d go to jail. He graduated from Eastern Senior High School and went to college in Nebraska on a football scholarship. But 2 1/2 years later, he quit. He returned to the District, becoming a father and then, an addict.

“I wasn’t taught how to be a man,” the 37-year-old Borges said of growing up without a male role model. “I learned what I learned from being around people on the streets. Then I started depending on drugs and alcohol and things like that to numb whatever I was going through.”

He’d use PCP after dropping off his children at school and continue until it was time to pick them up. He went to work high.

“It became the way I coped with everything,” Borges said, “and that is where things started turning.”

In 2010, Borges was arrested and charged in a cab robbery. He said he never had his hands on a weapon in the incident, but when he was caught, authorities found a weapon in his bag. He was charged in three other taxi robberies.

Borges pleaded guilty to robbery, assault and theft in 2011 and got a 15-year sentence.

After about six years in prison, he applied in 2016 to Re-Entry Court.

“ ‘I want to be a positive role model for my son and daughter,’ ” Tynes recalled Borges telling him. “ ‘I’ve been out of their lives for quite a while and I’m hoping to reenter society as a successful person so I may never leave their lives again.’ ”

Norman Brown, imprisoned in the last drug war, thought he’d die there. He was freed just as the war resumed.

The program doesn’t accept inmates convicted of sex offenses, arson or kidnapping. Applicants convicted of violent crimes are considered on a case-by-case basis.

To be accepted, inmates must secure approval from some of the agencies that have a hand in their imprisonment: prosecutors, public defenders, the health department, corrections officials, parole and probation, and the police.

Hill, the judge who has presided over the special court for about two years, said participants are scheduled to leave prison sooner or later, so it’s better that they leave with skills to help them cope with the challenges of life on the outside to prevent a return.

Thirteen people have graduated and nine others are in the program now, according to the court.

Anyone who commits additional crime while in the program faces a return to prison.

One graduate committed a burglary and was resentenced. A current participant was charged with theft and robbery and is awaiting sentencing. One man died in a shooting while going through the program.

In one case, Hill returned a participant to prison for five years because the person couldn’t meet the program’s demands.

“I’m hard on these gentlemen because when they reoffend, they endanger the whole Re-Entry Court program,” Hill said. “God forbid someone went through the program and a victim got hurt.”

No one who graduated from the special court program has gone on to commit a violent offense against another person, the court said.

The three-phase program is designed to last 18 to 24 months. In the first phase, participants remain incarcerated, receiving intensive treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues. They then return home under GPS monitoring and meet weekly with case workers and parole and probation officers. In the final phase, the location monitoring ends and individuals plan their transition out of the program with counseling and continued supervision.

The second and third phases are often the hardest. Eager to get jobs and make up for time lost to prison, the demands of the court program become frustrating. With no cars or driver's licenses, participants must take long bus rides to Upper Marlboro for court and random drug testing. And with little job experience and the time commitments needed to meet court obligations, they find it difficult to get work.

“Anger management! Urine! Work! I can’t make all those appointments on the bus!” one Re-Entry Court participant yelled in court one day. “Community service on top of that is impossible!”

But the demands are designed to teach planning and time management — what Hill wanted to emphasize when he pressed Borges about missing his drug test.

Two weeks after his Florida trip seemed doomed, Borges came to court with an essay tapped out on his phone. Before a judge and full courtroom, Borges read from the screen.

“I must plan better and always allow myself enough time for any obstacle that could obstruct me from meeting my end goal,” Borges said. “When everything is said and done, this very situation has taught me that in the midst of everything, you are in control of your goals and all it takes is one slip-up and you will be reminded of how much further you still have to go . . . you either met your requirements and obligations or you didn’t. There is no in-between.”

The courtroom erupted with applause.

“It was insightful to yourself,” Hill said. “I just want you to put it into action and hopefully this situation doesn’t come up again. . . . You will get to go to your trip to Miami.”

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Since leaving prison, Borges has landed jobs working security and managing real estate. He coaches middle school football and volunteers at a soup kitchen in the District. And he’s reconnecting with his 12- and 13-year-old children, who were 4 and 5 when he was incarcerated.

Gregory Sanders, who runs the special court program, said that when Borges first returned home he was impatient and had a hard time dealing with setbacks. After being in and out of prison, his children didn’t trust that he would stick around.

But Borges matured, Sanders said, often calling him or Tynes for advice.

“He’s constantly doing things to make sure that they know, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ ” Sanders said, referring to Borges’s children. “He understands he has to be responsible. He’s learned to have more compassion and open up his feelings in counseling.”

Borges’s fiancee, Tameka Smith, said she has watched him become more professional and grounded.

“It was rough at times” given the rigor of the court program, “but he’s learned a few things,” Smith said. “This gave him the structure that he needed, that he didn’t have before.”

Borges said he has stayed sober and become more disciplined and focused through the program. And Sanders gave him valuable advice on how to “be a man inside the home and keep it together.”

“Being able to identify problems and deal with them,” Borges said, “that’s one of the best parts of the program.”

Life still has ups and downs, Borges said, but he feels better equipped to navigate a world he had been isolated from for six years.

In November, about three months after returning from Florida, Borges donned a dark suit jacket and dress pants and went to the courthouse for what he hoped would be the last time.

He stood on a stage. He had made it through Re-Entry Court and was the only graduate that day.

His fiancee, children and other family members sat in the audience, cheering.

“For the first time, I feel like I’ve got my name back,” Borges said, reflecting on his “long ride.” He thanked the judge, his family, case workers and even prosecutors.

“I stand here before you today as a changed man because I understand that my actions have consequences,” Borges said. “I thought that this would never come to this point, but I’m here again. I’m back and there ain’t no stopping me.”