ST. LOUIS — Many of the least desirable offenders in Missouri have been fortunate to have one particular gray-haired advocate in their corner.

By all accounts, Carleen Reck, a Roman Catholic sister, is a force who speaks up on their behalf with a sense of authority that is becoming rarer.

“She’s been frustrated with me, and I’ve been frustrated with her,” said George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

But he said there’s always been a level of mutual respect during their long careers that helped them learn from each other and be productive.

“No one works harder for offenders than Carleen does,” Lombardi said.

Under her leadership, Reck widely expanded programs offered by Criminal Justice Ministry, a nonprofit organization that tries to reintegrate ex-convicts into the community so they will have success in life.

Reck believes hefty prison sentences are too often an expression of anger, rather than what’s safe for the community.

“It’s true, you’ve got a right to be angry, but do we always have to coin our anger with more time in prisons?” she said in an interview at her office at 941 Park Avenue, just south of downtown. “People don’t always think rationally about that.”

While mass incarceration in the U.S. has become a popular problem to figure out on both sides of the political spectrum, Criminal Justice Ministry has been in the field since 1979. Until now, the ministry has always been run by a Catholic sister.

Reck, 79, recently stepped down after 17 years at the helm. Her replacement is a layman.

“I don’t want to be in charge,” she said. “Everybody wants to know what I am going to do next. I am delighted to pause.”

Reck is part of a wave of women religious who are winding down their life’s work in education, health care, parish ministry and social justice arenas. In the 1960s, there were 180,000 sisters and nuns across the country. Today there are 48,000. In 2015, about 100 women professed final vows and 200 entered religious life.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Reck is leaving behind a legacy that, according to a new study that measures outcomes, has made the St. Louis community safer and more productive.

When she was a student at Notre Dame High School, Reck said she would scout out the mother house. At 20, she decided to dive in and pursue a religious life with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the international congregation that sponsors the school.

She taught elementary and middle school and earned a doctorate in education at St. Louis University before being director of the elementary education department at the National Catholic Education Association in Washington. She wrote a lot of publications there, including one on how to teach children about HIV and AIDS, another about better understanding immigrants and refugees.

Nine years later, she came back to Missouri to be superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Jefferson City. In 1999, she interviewed for the head job at Criminal Justice Ministry, which used to be affiliated with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of St. Louis.

At the time, the annual budget was $275,500, including $5,000 in grants. Today, the budget is $1.1 million, most of which comes from grants that Reck sought.

The Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis is one of several organizations that support the ministry. Program director Melinda McAliney said serving ex-offenders is part of their mission, too.

“It’s a hard population to work with,” she said. “You are not talking about fuzzy animals and rainbows. They have done things that have hurt society.”

She described Reck as a “spitfire” with a stout backbone.

“She is not afraid to speak up in whatever audience it is and be that voice for people who have been marginalized and forgotten by society,” she said.

Reck grew up near Hampton Village and attended St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church and school. Her father worked for the post office and her mother was a bank teller. She has one older brother, a Jesuit priest.

The most significant program Reck started is called “Release To Rent.” The ministry co-signs leases for ex-cons and guarantees their rent is paid for one year, while providing other support. The annual cost of the program is about $11,000 a person.

According to a draft evaluation of the program by Beth Huebner, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the program has seen success. Of a group of 190 men who entered the rent program, half completed it. Of those, 23 percent ended up back in the criminal justice system within three years versus 71 percent of the dropouts.

“The outcomes are particularly significant given the extensive criminal history, lower education rates and high substance dependence among the intervention group,” the evaluation says. “In addition, the individuals enrolled in the program do not have the same level of social support from family and friends that has been typically noted as a central part of understanding success on parole.”

Unlike programs such as Concordance Academy, the high-profile re-entry startup headed by former Wells Fargo Advisors chief Danny Ludeman, Criminal Justice Ministry takes sex offenders and others who are not accepted by some agencies.

Derrick Ross was one of the first participants in Release to Rent. He had a long criminal history. In 1982, he was sentenced to 120 years in prison for first-degree assault, robbery and armed criminal action. He thought he’d die in prison but was paroled after more than 22 years.

Criminal Justice Ministry helped him get an apartment and land a job at a laundry that he holds today, now as a supervisor.

He also sits on the Criminal Justice Ministry board of directors and continues to participate in peer support groups.

“She hears our cry,” Ross, 55, said about Reck. “To find someone who genuinely cares — who doesn’t want anything from you other than to be successful — come on now, that’s awesome.”

Kevin Wright is another ex-con who sticks out from Reck’s tenure.

He’s a sex offender who got a job sorting garbage in south St. Louis and was soon promoted to night manager. He moved from the St. Louis Community Release Center into an apartment.

He was on a path to independence until Phoenix-based Republic Services, one of the largest waste management companies in the country, bought the recycling plant he was working at in 2010 and let Wright go. His criminal record was the problem.

Reck went public but it didn’t help him keep his job.

“If we can’t let people come back from prison, and not get the least desirable job of all, how are they ever going to be able to make it?” Reck told the Post-Dispatch in 2012.

Anthony D’Agostino, 35, has been selected to be the next leader of Criminal Justice Ministry. Married with one child, he realizes that his compassion doesn’t compete with a woman who devoted her whole life to the mission.

But he said he’s devoted his career to it.

D’Agostino has a doctorate degree in educational leadership from St. Louis University and most recently was in charge of programs at Springboard to Learning, an organization that works with underserved youth. He used to teach theology at Incarnate Word Academy.

In an interview, he spoke with high energy about reaching men and women coming out of prison.

“A community is not going to be safe or the place we want it to be if we don’t help people with their basic needs,” he said.