By Lara Bazelon
Judge Leo Sorokin, 56, has spent his professional life working in the criminal justice system. A graduate of Yale College and Columbia Law School, Sorokin served as an assistant attorney general, a federal public defender, and a magistrate judge. In 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Sorokin to the federal district court in Boston; he was confirmed by the Senate in 2014.
Sorokin, a soft-spoken, balding man with pale blue eyes, has an unassuming manner that gives no hint of his tenacity. In the fall of 2015, Sorokin launched a pilot program he had been envisioning for years, with no precedent in the federal system. He called it RISE—Repair, Invest, Succeed, Emerge. RISE offered a rare second chance for adult defendants convicted of serious federal crimes to avoid prison.
Beginning in October 2015, a committee of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and probation officers met monthly to screen possible RISE participants. To be eligible, defendants had to have a verifiable history of addiction or a life of extreme deprivation. They also had to plead guilty, and have their sentencing hearings postponed for 12 months, during which time they had to get clean, get jobs, go to school, and find a place to live.
But the core, non-negotiable component of RISE was attendance at a two-day restorative justice workshop. Sitting in a room for eight hours a day, the RISE participants came face to face with people who had lost children and close family members to overdoses and shootings. Also in the room were prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and probation officers, but not in their traditional roles. They, too, participated, sharing personal experiences, and offering support and encouragement. Mostly, they listened without judgment as the offenders haltingly described their own victimization. They spoke of their addiction, mental illness, abuse, and poverty.