TAMPA — Susan Leonard's past suggested a woman headed for either a long life in prison or an early death.
She was a married alcoholic at 14, a divorced crack addict at 30. She had racked up 15 arrests and violated probation six out of 10 times before her indictment on federal cocaine charges. By age 50, she had held only two jobs, the longest for two years.
This harsh history had qualified her, however, for a new federal program that functions as a more intensive probation period for those inmates fresh out of prison — and most likely to end up there again.
On Thursday, Leonard graduated from the one-year re-entry program — drug-free, employed by a motel and reconnected with a daughter she had abandoned.
"Ms. Leonard has created a new past," said assistant federal public defender Adam B. Allen.
Leonard, who now lives in Tampa, and three others were honored in a graduation ceremony at the U.S. District Courthouse in Tampa.
They are the first graduates out of the Tampa court, which a little over a year ago began its version of a program designed to help released prisoners fit back into society and avoid committing new crimes. Orlando and Jacksonville divisions of the federal district began similar efforts about 11/2 years ago.
The program requires substance-abuse treatment, frequent drug testing, counseling and weekly court sessions at which participants catch up with the volunteer judges, prosecutors and public defenders tracking their progress.
Completion of the program earns participants one year off their supervision terms.
"Being here on time, every week, is a huge responsibility for them," said U.S. District Judge James Whittemore.
U.S. Probation Officer Chong Bahng picks potential students from a federal halfway house in Tampa. The aim of this particular program isn't to reward those convicts with the highest chance of succeeding; it's to help steady those with the lowest chances.
"The people we look for are the ones with the worst record," he said.
Because the federal re-entry program is relatively new — the first one started in Boston about five years ago — reoffense rates are not yet available, he said.
David Cruz had a bad enough record to warrant inclusion in the program. In 1993, in the Bronx while on parole, Cruz participated in at least 18 armed robberies. Since the age of 22, he spent more than half his life in prison. By his own account, a judge back then called him "a dangerous animal."
But within the past year, Cruz, 41, landed a job, completed drug treatment and got engaged. He has used regular court sessions to talk through new challenges, including how to shed a prison mentality that endorsed violence as a way to defend his honor.
"Getting this stuff out in the open helped a lot," he said.
Another graduate, Lemuel Blue, who served time on federal cocaine convictions, said the program gave him a "support system" that regular supervised release does not.
"When you come out of prison, you feel naked and alone," said Blue, 55, of Hudson, who finished drug treatment, got a telemarketing job and moved into a condo.
The other graduate, 52-year-old George Doos of Tampa, who served time in prison on methamphetamine convictions, said the therapy sessions have given him new insights into himself.
"It was things I knew, I guess, but they brought it all to the surface," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.