Michael Finley found himself Wednesday yet again sitting in a federal courtroom, but this time he had a smile on his face. The U.S. Middle District of Louisiana courtroom in Baton Rouge was abuzz with excitement and well-wishers, including his fiancée and daughter, who also were beaming.
Almost three years after he'd sat in that same courtroom awaiting his sentencing from Judge Shelly Dick, Finley was now one of three in the first class to complete the court's inaugural reentry program, a yearlong commitment aimed at supporting ex-offenders following their release from federal prison.
"I was interested because I wanted to do something better," Finley, 46, said. "Just staying motivated toward doing better, because it's so easy to fall back into the same things you did before."
Finley, along with two other men, were handed certificates — and hugs — from Dick and U.S. District Magistrate Judge Erin Wilder-Doomes to commemorate their completion of the program.
The voluntary program, called RISE: Rehabilitating Individuals through Strategic Encounters, offers support to nonviolent offenders who have served at least 36 months in federal prison and are considered to be at a high risk of recidivism, said Dick, who presides over the re-entry court with Wilder-Doomes.
"It's remarkable the difference in their demeanor," Dick said of the three men who completed the program. "Their physical persona is remarkably different."
Leslie Smith, Finley's fiancée, said the program has been so beneficial for their family.
"I'm so proud of him," Smith said. "Just keeping him motivated, keeping his spirits up … being the positive influence."
And Finley has been able to stay on track, Smith said. He's been working consistently at a flooring company and stayed focused on his family. Finley shared Wednesday's graduation celebration with their daughter's 17th birthday, who wore a crown to the ceremony.
Finley was convicted of distribution of cocaine in 2015 and sentenced to 39 months in prison. When he was released, he committed to the requirements of RISE, which meant that upon his completion, he would receive a year off his supervised probation.
Finley and the two other men in RISE were required to come to court once or twice a month to meet with a judge, participate in therapy, stay sober, work toward employment, complete a service project and commit to additional supervision by a probation officer in that first year. Finley said completing the program meant giving up his lunch breaks — but it was worth it.
At its start, six ex-offenders began in the program, but only three completed the yearlong process, said Clarence Rambo, chief probation officer for the Middle District of Louisiana. Nevertheless, Rambo said, he still believes that is a success.
Their motto all year had been "one at a time," said Rambo, who first came up with the idea for RISE.
Of the three who didn't complete the program, one was rearrested, one voluntarily dropped out because of the time commitment, and one did not keep up with the program's requirements, Dick said.
While many other federal and state courts have similar programs, the Middle District of Louisiana had nothing like it until last February. Dick and Rambo hope they can continue to expand the program and, in the future, begin a pre-entry diversionary court, which would work with offenders on the front-end of the criminal justice system instead of the back-end, they said.
The best part of the program for Jeffrey LeFlore, who also graduated Wednesday, was the support system he gained, he said.
"When it started out, I wasn't expecting the judge and the prosecutor to be a part of your life the way they was, like a friend, mother, father, with them being there for me," said LeFlore, who was convicted of possession of cocaine and served 10 years.
LeFlore's wife, Brandi LeFlore, called the RISE team genuine, saying she was touched that everyone, from judges to probation officers to therapists, treated her husband like family.
"So many of our black fellows grow up in a poor neighborhood and they don't have people willing to give them a chance," Brandi LeFlore said. "All these people here know him, they believe in him and trust him. I think it's something they need. … Though they made mistakes it's alright, they have a chance."
Jeffrey LeFlore is still searching for a job, but he's recently secured his commercial driver's license and hopes to utilize that in the workforce. Included in his future plans will mentoring other ex-offenders who go through RISE, he said.
Rambo said many of the ex-offenders started out uneasy, unsure of the goals of the program and if they might easily get thrown back behind bars. But that quickly changed.
"The past year these guys have grown," Rambo said. "They have taken pride in what they've accomplished and they're not selfish, they want to help others succeed."