The usual faces met her gaze inside the same federal courtroom in St. Paul where she pleaded guilty to fraud and drug charges just four years ago.

There was the judge who sentenced her, cloaked in his black robe. The veteran prosecutor who has charged many others just like her, joined by an attorney from the federal defender's office. The probation officer who kept close watch since her release from a halfway house last year also sat nearby.

But this summer morning hearing was different for Moneer, a 34-year-old now living in Hudson, Wis., signaled by the slices of sheet cake making the rounds to mark her graduation from an intensive and unusual re-entry court program.

"I was riding the fence when I got out of prison," she told the group. "I had one foot on the street, one foot on wanting to do right."

Now, Moneer is the 12th person to graduate from Minnesota's 18-month federal re-entry program, which is in its third year after the federal bench opted recently to keep it running beyond its first two years of experimental pilot status. Doing away with the adversarial trappings of typical court proceedings, officials from across the federal criminal justice system volunteer their time to sit around the same table with offenders deemed most at risk of tripping up again after incarceration.

Minnesota's federal re-entry court is now one of about 60 nationwide, but it's the only one that matches participants with mentors from the community, some of whom have their own stories of readjusting to life after being locked up. Introduced at a time when federal probation officials recorded a 73 percent recidivism rate among Minnesota's highest-risk offenders, the court program has helped engineer a dramatic drop to just 27 percent since working with 57 offenders in the program.

"We have such an important dual responsibility — yes, to keep people accountable but also to be the last person to give up on someone," said Senior U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, one of two federal judges who have volunteered to preside over the initiative.

A supportive environment

Two groups of up to 10 re-entry court participants each gather in St. Paul every other week for morning or afternoon sessions with Frank or U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson that are usually closed to the public.

Participants like Moneer, who declined to provide her last name, are referred to the court by the federal probation office as it screens Minnesota offenders about to be released under supervision. To date, the court works only with those who probation officials believe are most likely to violate their supervised release terms based on factors such as steep criminal histories, substance abuse issues or lack of "pro-social" community ties.

"If we're going to put these resources in," said Chief U.S. Probation Officer Kevin Lowry, "then let's go toward where the need is."

But both federal officials and mentors who all volunteer time to work in the program now hope to see it broaden to work with a larger set of federal felons as they prepare to return to society. Those in the program undergo a layered process aimed at keeping them employed — Lowry said up to 95 percent of Minnesota's probationers are holding down jobs — find housing and stay in control of any drug or alcohol troubles.

Lowry estimated that the program helps generate up to $30,000 in yearly savings for each participant who is able to stay on supervision rather than being placed back behind bars, a far more costly endeavor.

Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said last week that he believed the court, and its use of community mentors, "has worked extremely well." Tunheim said he expected the approach to be adopted on a more permanent basis and to also expand to include other judges.

Tunheim is hopeful that re-entry court could contain answers to a creeping rise in court time needed to address supervised release violations in a district already heavy on high-risk offenders. According to the court, the average time between an offender's release and their first violation has dropped from 428 days to just 119 in the past five years.

Both Frank and Nelson have noticed re-entry court participants be taken aback on their first day in the court upon noticing that they're sitting elbow-to-elbow with the judges and federal officials, not looking up at a judge looming from their usual perch. This was by design, said Odell Wilson, a supervisory U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services officer who helped write Minnesota's program.

Wilson said the group envisioned crafting a supportive environment for offenders who grew to see the courtroom as a place where failure meant leaving in handcuffs. Instead, it can also foster feedback from fellow participants — like when one man interjected during a recent session to express disappointment in a peer who ceased attending a support group at which they had bonded.

"Sometimes it's just being willing to be held accountable without what sometimes is a norm of just denying everything until somebody can actually put a picture in front of your face showing you that you did the crime," Wilson said.

'Am I good enough?'

In mentoring Moneer while she found work in the hospitality industry and sought to reconnect with family, Mindy Mueller retraced a difficult path she also traveled not long ago.

"I think the scariest part, really, is coming out of prison," said Mueller, now a supervisor at a faith-based recovery program in Minneapolis. "Going into prison is easy — I've been in and out of jails most of my life and surrounded by criminals."

Coming out of prison, Mueller said, prompted the key questions of what comes next, and how. She had to find work, and she and her husband were asked to move out of their loft because of her new criminal history.

"Can I do it? Am I good enough? What's my criminal background going to do?" she asked.

The first 90 days are vital to those familiar with re-entry, said Rocky DeYoung, a longtime reenty specialist who moved from the government to the private sector to continue working as a mentor earlier this year.

Anything representing change — meeting a probation officer for the first time or trying to figure out housing and transportation — can be a stressor, he said.

"And you're still weighing whether it's all worth it or not because you know what's easy to do," DeYoung said. "You can go back to that life in a heartbeat."

On her last day in the program, Moneer found herself the subject of a new line of questioning by authorities: Why was she so successful?

She said seeing her oldest daughter, who would become a regular visitor while she stayed in the halfway house, and waiting for her in baggage claim upon her release from prison inspired her to never put her children through that ordeal again.

Re-entry has been trying, she conceded. She watched people get high in that halfway house, and she attended the funeral of a resident who once ran in similar circles. Missing at the wake were any of the faces from her old part of town.

"I saw a preview of who would be looking out for me," Moneer told the court.

Even driving to re-entry court took her through those same neighborhoods and all the temptation still running through their streets. But, she said, her former friends don't care what she's doing. "They'll suck you back in."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Slaughter chimed in, calling it remarkable how Moneer didn't try to reconnect with the same people when she got out. He said he lost count over the past 18 months of all the decisions she made to help herself. She'll be top of mind as a possible mentor or speaker one day, he said.

Embracing Moneer, Frank told her that he is sometimes asked why he and Nelson have devoted the extra time to the re-entry court. Why do it at all?

"Because we really think we can make a difference working with special people," he said. "You are a perfect example. … You defy the stereotype of a convicted felon."

smontemayor@startribune.com 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor