June 14, 2014

Starting over: Federal court program aims to keep ex-cons out of prison

Instead of being sentenced in front of federal judges or facing federal prosecutors, several ex-felons were celebrated by them for turning their lives around and doing the right thing.

As their family members looked on with smiles on their faces, each ex-offender's name was called and they walked over to U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald Wilkerson to shake his hand. He gave them a coin and a key chain shaped like a star and told them how proud he was of their accomplishments since leaving prison.

Wilkerson said the star was shaped like that on law enforcement officials badges. He joked with them and told them not to go out and act like they were law enforcement officials. This drew a hefty laugh from the ex-cons and the crowd in the courtroom.

Those who were being honored on Thursday are current or past participants in what law enforcement officials call the Court Assisted Program, or C.A.P. The program was started in 2008 in the Southern District of Illinois by the court and U.S. Probation office with cooperation from the U.S. Attorney's office and the Office of the Federal Public Defender.

Twice a month, court officials meet with participants to give them encouragement, help with any problems, and to put a human face on the court system, said Wilkerson, who heads up the program. It is a re-entry program that helps ex-offenders make good choices rather than the bad ones that landed them in jail.

Darryl Womack, 51, said he first got in trouble in 1982 when he was 17.

"I accidentally shot and killed somebody. I was charged with armed violence and sentenced to 12 years in the state Department of Corrections," he said.

Of the 12-year sentence, Womack did six years and was released in 1988.

"I went back to the state in 1992 on a drug charge and was released in 1993 and was back by December 1994.

This time, he had caught a federal drug conspiracy rap and was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. After 19 years, he is out again. This time, he says it is for good.

"When I went to jail the first time, they put me with the lions, tigers and bears. They taught me things I didn't know and I brought this back to the streets and got into drug dealing," he said.

For Womack, the C.A.P. program is a wonderful thing. He says it allows him to come and talk to judges, probation officers, public defenders about things that are happening in his life. And, he said they give solutions to some things for him.

"But, a person has to change the way he was thinking in the past if he wants to be helped," Womack said.

He said he dropped out of school in the 10th grade, something he know knows was a bad choice. And, he has suffered some deep wounds in his lifetime, too.

In 1997, his oldest son, Darryl Womack Jr. was shot in the head and killed. In 2008, another son, Michael Womack, went missing and to this day he has not been located. "This has made me want to change my life. I was not there for them. I have two other boys and two girls. I want to be here for them. I also want to try to locate my missing son. I am also the grandfather of 15 grandchildren. I have to be here for them. The life I was leading, I now know was not the right one. Those days, for me, are over."

C.A.P. is a volunteer program.

"I think it is a good program for people who are coming out of prison," Womack said. "It helps you to start your life over. They really help you with the problems you have and talk to you about positive things. It helps you to get off parole sooner if you successfully complete it."

Chief U.S. District Judge David Herndon said the re-entry program is important because it helps individuals who have been previously incarcerated, many of them for several years, with returning to society.

And though he lost his mother, Marilyn Wigginton, 48 hours before the C.A.P. ceremony on Thursday, U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton said he felt it important to be there to talk the individuals who are successes in the program.

"I was able to hold my mother's hand and say goodbye. I feel for those who were incarcerated and not able to say goodbye to a loved one," Wigginton said.

Wigginton said the re-entry program is important to the justice system because the recidivism rate is approximately 40 percent and if ex-offenders have people in place to talk to them and guide them, hopefully it will keep them from reoffending.

"Our goal is to drive the recidivism rate down and to assist these citizens who've paid their debt, to become productive members of society who pay taxes, and take care of their kids," he said.

Community service is another component of C.A.P. It allows participants to personally contribute and be a part of the communities where they live. The ex-offenders participate in clothing, book and food drives.

Wigginton said there are still some people in the Department of Justice who don't believe prosecutors, or judges should assist in helping ex-cons.

"I don't share that belief. The role of a prosecutor is not just to win convictions and send people away for as long as we can. The role of the prosecutor is to see that justice is served. Justice includes assisting those individuals who have paid their debts, fines" and costs to return to society, Wigginton said.

Wilkerson said about 55 individuals have participated in the program.

Herndon said some people think judges enjoy putting people in prison, but that is truly not the case, he said.

"Our mission is help people before it comes to that," he said. "If we can do this, we're better off philosophically, socially and economically."

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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