The session was the first one for the Court Assisted Reentry Effort -- CARE -- program. In the program, former federal prisoners voluntarily undergo more intensive requirements than other former inmates under supervision by probation officers. Participants also have to meet with Bowdre once every two weeks for at least the next three months, followed by once-a-month visits.
The most important requirement is cognitive behavior therapy counseling. Bowdre said studies have shown the therapy aids the most in helping ex-convicts to start making the right decisions.
"None of you would be here today if you had been making the right choices in your life," she told them.
CARE program officials said they also will be there to help give ex-inmates the assistance they need to adjust to living outside a structured life in prison -- from education and help finding a job, to directing them to agencies to help with housing, child care, food, light bills or simply helping them get their driver licenses back.
"We want to come up alongside of you and help smooth out bumps in the road," Bowdre told the four men. "We're here to be your biggest supporters -- your biggest cheerleaders."
The one thing CARE officials can't provide, Bowdre told the men, "is your attitude."
If they graduate from the program, they could get a year shaved off their supervised release, Bowdre told the men. Supervised release, which often includes regular checks with probation officers and drug screenings, sometimes lasts up to five years depending on the case.
Former prisoners are selected for the CARE program after interviews and a detailed statistical ranking system that shows which ones re-entering the community are at the highest risk to commit another crime and go back to prison, Bowdre said.
Each of the four men in the first group had convictions for gun crimes and all have had drug issues in the past.
Brett Wadsworth, one of the local Criminal Justice Act panel defense attorneys assigned to help indigent defendants, is among the members of the CARE team. Others on the team are officials from the U.S. Probation Office, U.S. Attorney's Office and Alabama Court Services, which provides various counseling services.
U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance said she is optimistic the CARE program will work. "Sometimes people like to laugh and say that it's 'hug a thug' or it's soft on crime .¤.¤. it's just a matter of being smart and pragmatic and getting good results for communities," she said.
David Russell, chief probation officer for the federal court's Northern District of Alabama, said that last fiscal year, 101 out of 435 supervision cases closed by the probation office, 23.2 percent, were closed due to revocation and the person being sent back to prison. The rate was 25 percent in 2010 and 21 percent in 2009, he said.
Russell said he was pleased to see the CARE program started.
Bowdre was the catalyst to get CARE started and she spent a lot of time studying what works best and meeting with people, officials with the program said.
"She has a passion for this," Russell said.
Federal courts around the country have been experimenting with inmate re-entry programs in the past decade. The northern district had a drug court for about a year and a half but that ended last year with a decision to start one aimed at those at highest risk for re-offending.
Making good choices
Bowdre told the men that they need to think about the choices they make and the consequences of those choices. Before their buddies come knocking at the door asking them to go to a nightclub with people who are drinking and doing drugs, she said, they need to think what might happen.
After explaining the program, Bowdre asked the men to voluntarily sign a commitment to joining the CARE program. A couple of the men hesitated before they signed and asked questions of the judge.
One of the men told the judge that besides a temporary job -- which he hopes to turn into a permanent job -- and requirements for the regular federal probation, he also has to go through drug testing and community service for charges from the city of Birmingham.
"It's just a lot," the man told the judge of the extra work required with the CARE program.
U.S. Probation Officer Eddy Fuentes told the man that he would talk to Birmingham to see about lessening the city's probation requirements.
Another man told the judge that transportation was an issue. Three of the four men did not have driver licenses.
Bowdre explained to the men that CARE program officials knew transportation would be one of the issues before the program was started and that the probation office would help the men work it out.
"We're not going to be setting you up for failure. Give us a try," said U.S. Probation Officer Melissa Torres.
"I recommend you give it a shot and give it everything you've got," Wadsworth told the men before they signed the agreements.
As part of her bi-weekly meetings with the men, Bowdre said she would give them assignments. One of their first assignments for their next meeting on Jan. 25 was for them to each draw up a list of three positive fun things they can add to their lives that can replace the negative things that could get them in trouble.
Their other assignments were to start the 12-week-long cognitive behavior therapy sessions and find a mentor who can help support or guide them and serve as a role model. It needs to be "someone you can look up to" but not a family member, she said.
The men will continue to meet with their probation officers and be drug tested.
Bowdre also doled out individual assignments, such as counseling and GED classes. For the two who had already found work, Bowdre told them to continue in their jobs.
"We're not just coming in here doing a lot of feel-good things," Bowdre told the men