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In St. Louis, Missouri, the federal probation office handles one of the biggest caseloads of violent offenders in the country. It also boasts one of the lowest recidivism rates. That's in part because probation officers there have a secret weapon; a man who, for one very good reason, knows how to keep ex-offenders from returning to prison.

Julie Bierach of St. Louis Public Radio has his story.

JULIE BIERACH, BYLINE: Every week day, Clark Porter, a tall man with a sturdy build, comes to work here at the Eagleton Courthouse in St. Louis, to work with tough ex-offenders. On the outside, he wears a suit and tie. On the inside, he has more in common with the former felons than most. Back in 1986, a skinny 17-year-old Clark Porter went on trial here as an adult for robbing a post office at gunpoint. His sentence: 35 years.

CLARK PORTER: The hardest part of prison is when you get into year five. That's when you start hearing the door close. You get these pangs of reality and it's like, you know, wow, I got a 35-year sentence - I'm not going anywhere.

BIERACH: Porter served 15 years. When he was released in 2001, he radically changed his life, enrolling in Washington University in St. Louis while still on probation. This former violent felon transitioned from serving hard time in a Supermax to working in the probation office because of this man, Doug Burris.

DOUG BURRIS: I was so uplifted just from that, without knowing how horrendously bad his background was. The fact that we had someone that was on parole to us that had graduated from Washington University, a school that likely my SAT's would not even let me get into.

BIERACH: Burris is the chief probation officer in St. Louis. And Clark Porter did the unthinkable when he asked him for a job.

BURRIS: My initial reaction was, I laughed. And I thought, you know, that's the craziest idea you could ever come up with.

BIERACH: Remember, these are the same people that put Clark Porter in prison. They pushed to try him as an adult, arguing that he was beyond hope. Before Burris could take a chance on Porter, he needed permission from then-Chief Judge Carol Jackson.

BURRIS: She's either going to have me committed or throw me out of her office. I was proposing that we hire a former violent felon that was prosecuted out of this district.

BIERACH: To Burris's surprise, Judge Jackson agreed.

Fast forward to today where Porter is working with a group of ex-offenders in an intense seven-month-long program he helped design. The ex-felons here must do community service, look for a job and participate in therapy. Most have drug offenses. Porter says many face a daunting choice for employment he calls McDonald's or dope.

PORTER: An uneducated black man growing up in the inner city, you're going to choose the one that pays better. And dope pays sometimes.

BIERACH: Porter argues that revoking probation for not finding a job or for substance abuse is counterproductive.

PORTER: Did it serve our interest to lock him up? Or did it serve our interest to get him clean? Because if he's clean, we don't have to worry about him knocking somebody in the head for a shot of dope.

BIERACH: Lamont McGhee served 13 years in prison for drug conspiracy. He went through Porter's program and acknowledges that Porter's job isn't an easy one.

LAMONT MCGHEE: He's got to put up with a lot of knuckleheads. He got to put up with a lot of people that's not going to listen, a lot of people that say that he one of them, meaning he's a probation officer.

BIERACH: Criminologist Beth Huebner researches recidivism among young offenders at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. She says ex-offenders are more successful in programs like Porter's because he was once just like them.

BETH HUEBNER: There are some mentoring programs here and there, but there's no real systematic development of this sort of program. But this is something that I hear from offenders, that this is something that they want and that they need.

BIERACH: Because of their success, Doug Burris and Clark Porter speak to groups across the country. Burris beams when recalling the time he sent Porter to attend a regional White House meeting.

BURRIS: Because the last time the government paid for him to fly, he was in handcuffs and belly chains on his way to a maximum security prison. And he went from that to having the government pay for him to fly to a meeting with White House officials.

BIERACH: Clark Porter says he knows it's a big responsibility to be a role model for offenders. And he also knows that some people are just waiting for him to mess up. But he says that just won't happen.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Bierach in St. Louis.

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