Sunday, January 27, 2013

DA's Program For Young Drug Dealers Succeeds With 10% Recidivism

When Seth Williams, the first Afro-American to serve as Philadelphia District Attorney (and the first-ever statewide), was campaigning for office, he promised the black community he would devote special attention to the needs of troubled youth. 

As a down payment on that promise, last February he launched The Choice Is Yours  

(TCY), a diversionary program for young offenders, aged 18-29, who have been arrested for distribution of two to ten grams of cocaine. The offense typically carries a one to two year sentence.

The program is still young: only 57 participants have enrolled in the program so far. But, with less than a 10% recidivism rate, the results are 7 times better than the state’s recidivism rate of 71%.

With 1.53 million people in the United States arrested for nonviolent drug offenses in 2011, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office felt that the most effective use of their resources was to design a problem that would reduce recidivism for drug offenders.

Careful consideration was given to which age demographic would benefit the most from such a program. 

Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline McCauley, who was the first to represent the District Attorney’s office in court for the program, said, “We originally decided on an age range of 18-26 years old, which was later expanded to 29, because we felt this age group had the most chance of turning around their life.

"Cocaine was picked because it is the most common drug being sold by the targeted demographic and it also has the least severe mandatory sentence," said Assistant District Attorney Derek Riker, who is chief of the Diversions Court Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. 

In an interview, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams explained he created the program because of his belief in taking a “holistic and “smart on crime” approach to fighting crime. He is adapting in Philadelphia the “best practices” in the national law enforcement arena. Williams is differentiating himself from his predecessor, long time Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, by focusing his office's efforts on public safety not prosecutions.

“Since the 1950’s we have locked up 7 times the amount of people, but we are not 7 times safe,” he noted.

The pilot program, funded primarily by a $1 million grant from the Philadelphia-based Lenfest foundation, is modeled after San Francisco’s Back on Track program. Kamala Harris, who is currently California Attorney General and a rumored Supreme Court nominee, created the program when she was San Francisco's District Attorney. 

It allows first-time nonviolent drug offenders to wipe their criminal slate clean after completing an arduous year-long program run by Jewish Employment and Vocational Services (JEVS).

JEVS employees, who often act as cheerleaders for their charges, have replaced probation officers, who are typically more punitive than encouraging.

“This office is interested in justice,” says Assistant District Attorney Derek Riker, head of the Diversionary Courts Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.” Sometimes, justice looks like we are giving people a break."

Riker emphasizes that TCY participants pose no danger to the public because they have no record of violence. 

The hearings often resemble a collaborative graduate seminar than an adversarial courtroom proceeding. 

Judge Marsha Neifield, presides over Courtroom 305 in the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia, where the hearings are held. Together with JEVS employees, DA Riker, and various public defenders, her non-threatening sessions introduce a new paradigm for courtroom proceedings. A casual observer might think that he has mistakenly stumbled into a group therapy session. The lawyers and judges work hard to avoid detention for an infraction and instead propose character strengthening solutions such as more frequent attendance at NA meetings.

Neifield is "cautiously optimistic" about the program. She credits the frequent court updates for playing a central role in the success of the program, but she may be the secret ingredient that makes the program so successful.

In the courtroom, she often sounds more like a concerned parent than an officer of the court. Neifield, who is President Judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court, channels the perky enthusiasm of Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde" when addressing TCY participants. She lavishes praise on those that are meeting their benchmarks.

When one diversionary candidate was constantly late for her JEVS training sessions and court dates, Neifield sanctioned her by assigning to write an essay on the importance of punctuality  The judge was visibly thrilled when the offender later was holding a steady job at the local convenience store that started at 7 30 am.

She proudly exclaimed, "“Before this, the only 7:30 that you ever saw was 7:30 pm.”

Other judges have picked up the same tone.

Judge Patrick Dugan, sitting in for Niefield at another session, sounded like a curmudgeonly uncle when he gently admonished participants “to sit up straight". He urged one offender to go to college by saying, “don’t say you will try, say you can do it."  

And the participants pay attention. They seem to be thriving with the in locus parentis philosophy of the court. To paraphrase Hilary Rodham Clinton, "It takes a village to raise a young adult."

When public defender Mike Lovell ordered one seemingly hardened offender to pull up his pants because “this is a courtroom and not a fashion show,” he did so with alacrity. 

Enrollees in the program must agree to participate in quarterly or more frequent status updates. At these updates, JEVS employees report on their attendance and progress. One of the most common infractions for participants was not completing their community service. 

Even wayward defendants are given the benefit of the doubt. Assistant District Attorney Riker, who plays the role of compassionate ombudsman during the proceedings, uses the threat of a jail term only as a final resource---more often pressing participants for more accountability of their community service obligations or stepping up the frequency of status updates. He beamed with pride when he introduced one participant, who held a steady job and is completing his community service on schedule, as the most successful of the program. 

Assistant District Attorney McCauley touted the success of program participants instead of her conviction rate during every interview. 

She noted, “As they participate in the program, you can see a visual difference in them. They stand up straighter, dress neater.”

McCauley goes out of her way to help program participants succeed. During a courtroom break, she introduced El Sawyer, the operations director of The Village of Arts and Humanities. 

Sawyer, who served 8 years in Graterford Prison, helps former prisoners with reentry by teaching them filmmaking skills

He said, “I have found that film making is a great way for parolees to process what has happened to them."

Barry Johnson, a Navy veteran that exuded discipline, is in charge of training TCY program participants. He seems to understand the challenges that these young adults face. 

“I grew up in a bad neighborhood just like these kids," he said. "I escaped. I enlisted in the Navy. I did not get into trouble with the law,” said Johnson. "But some members of my family and neighbors did get into trouble so I know what it takes to succeed.”

The 57 participants, with additional cohorts added monthly, attend daily GED classes if they don’t have a high school diploma. Some of the high school graduates enroll in community college and trade schools. JEVS helps them with their applications and securing financial aid.

Those who enter the program with a high school diploma are required to attend twice weekly sessions at JEVS. They are taught resume writing, and job interview skills, and are assisted in their job search.

Even in an economy where youth unemployment is sky high, the enrollees are finding employment as parking lot attendants, convenience store clerks, barbers, landscapers, and construction workers. In addition, the one-time drug dealers are also required to volunteer at a local community center such as a park, recreational center, or church as part of the court mandate.

Getting a job or starting to study for a GED can be the easy part for disadvantaged youth.

Little things, such as transportation, illness, and child care, can overwhelm program participants and become obstacles to their continued success. JEVS social workers are assigned to each participant to help with these types of programs. 

TCY director Souleymane Fall, whose calm, dignified presence seems to soothe both participants and their concerned parents, sometimes fulfills the role of social worker during breaks in courtroom proceedings, which can end up taking up the better part of a day.

“I just arranged a dentist appointment for one youth,” he said in a recent interview. “I explained how to get subway tokens to another one.”

The program does not automatically kick out enrollees that have been re-arrested for minor offenses. The judge rarely considers jail. Instead, the judge imposes sanctions such as writing an essay about the importance of the program and mandatory attendance at AA and NA meetings for infractions.

The one non-negotiable requirement of the program is attendance at court dates. A bench warrant is issued for the rare few that do not show up. 

For many of the young people, many of the young people, it’s the first time that someone has paid attention to them---and quite a few relished the discipline of the program. 

“TCY got me off the streets,” said one, who appreciated being given a second chance. “I wake up in the morning and know where I have to go.”

The parents are equally appreciative.  

“TCY is a gift from god,” said one mother, who asked that her name be withheld. “My son is 18. He had never been in trouble before and now he has a chance to start over.”

Defense attorney Tracy Brandeis Roman, who frequently criticizes the over-zealousness of prosecutors, says the program offers young people a way to avoid landing in a cycle of crime that will blot their future lives.  

“I am in favor of anything that removes a felony conviction from my client’s record,” she says. “Prosecutors don’t understand or care that they will not work again once they have a felony conviction."

The Philadelphia taxpayer might be the biggest winner. According to Williams, the cost of a TCY participant is $5000 a year while the tab for a prisoner in Pennsylvania is $40,000 a year. The pilot program is funded by private donations.  To continue TCY, Williams is hoping to raise more money or convince the Republican controlled Pennsylvania legislature to support the program. He estimates that widespread adoption of the program could save taxpayers $7 million a year. 

Out of the program participants that stayed in the program after orientation, only 3 enrollees out of the original 57 candidates (approximately 6 percent) are in danger of being dropped from the program due to re-arrests as of November 2012.

One participant stopped showing up to the program after his house was robbed, which is a problem endemic to bad neighborhoods, but not one that can be solved by the program.

But the less than 10 percent failure rate, for a program that targets males a population with a high incidence  of recidivism, offers some long overdue hope to young offenders and their families.

As employers become familiar with the program, it will be easier to place new enrollees, according to TCY trainer Barry Johnson.

“It is my goal to have a long list of employers who will hire our participants,” he said. 

The success of TCY is attracting national attention. The Urban Institute has been studying the program in hopes of emulating it across the country. 

No comments:

Post a Comment