THE BLOG
08/09/2013 12:50 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

The Choice Is Yours, Philadelphia DA's Program For Young Drug Dealers Succeeds With Minimal Recidivism

The popularity of the new Netflix series, "Orange is the New Black, and the AMC series "Breaking Bad", has many questioning the wisdom of jailing drug dealers. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has created a diversionary program that should serve as a model for the entire country. 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 10 grams of cocaine. 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). This type of offense typically carries a one to two year sentence.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams created the program because he believes in taking a "holistic and smart on crime" approach to fighting crime. He is adapting to Philadelphia the "best practices" of the national law enforcement arena. This program, for example, is modeled after San Francisco's Back on Track program, created by then-San Francisco District Attorney General Kamala Harris. (She is currently California's Attorney General and on the shortlist for the US Supreme Court.)

With this program and others, Williams is making it clear that there is a new sheriff in town. He is differentiating himself from his predecessor, longtime Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, by focusing his office's efforts on public safety, not prosecutions.

"Since the 1950s, we have locked up seven times the amount of people, but we are not seven times safe," he said.

With the FBI statistics reporting that 1.53 million people arrested for non-violent drug offenses in 2011, his ideas have won bipartisan support. The WSJ editorial pages, a reliably right-wing bastion, have been outspoken against the failed war on drugs. Gary Becker, a University of Chicago professor who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, recently decried in its pages the annual $40 billion cost to taxpayers of trying and incarcerating drug dealers, and advocated for decriminalization.

Becker wrote, "The cost has been large in terms of lives, money and the well-being of many Americans, especially the poor and less educated."

H. F. Gerald Lenfest, whose foundation donated a $1 million to seed the pilot TCY program, sees the program as an economic necessity.

"We need to stop the revolving jail door. Prisoners are getting out and can't find a job because no one will hire them due to their criminal record. So they return to crime," said Lenfest. "This hurts our community and businesses in that community."

He urged the business community to become involved in the program and even hire those getting out of jail for non-violent offenses.

Bruce Melgary, the executive director of the Lenfest Foundation, said, "When Seth Williams was elected DA, we met with him and told him that we had an interest in prisoner reentry. He surprised us by saying that he had an interest in pre-entry. He wanted to prevent them from stepping foot in jail because all they got in prison was a PhD. in crime. We sponsored this program because it was the humane thing to do. The Lenfest foundation is all about helping people achieve a better life."

The program, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary this month, is still small: only 64 participants, with cohorts being added monthly, have enrolled. Some have tried the program and decided to opt out. But the results for those that have stayed far exceed expectations and would shock anyone familiar with Pennsylvania's prisoner recidivism rate of 71 percent for young offenders. The program currently has a 5 percent recidivism rate, with only three program participants having been re-arrested for minor offenses.

The success of the program is no accident. Careful consideration was given to which age demographic and class of drug offenders 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.

Riker emphasizes that TCY participants pose no danger to the public because those selected for the program must have no record of violence.

The structure of the program has also contributed to the success. The hearings often resemble a collaborative graduate seminar rather than an adversarial courtroom proceeding. There are no probation officers, who often find it easier to send offenders back to jail rather than rehabilitate them. They have been replaced with employees from Jewish Educational and Vocational Services (JEVS), whose job it is to help the offenders.

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.

In a departure from most diversionary programs, 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.

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 group therapy or a session on Oprah's couch. 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.

In an interview outside of court, Neifield indicated that she was "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 and punishes with a flourish that "Elle" would appreciate.

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. After writing the essay, the offender was able to hold a steady job at the local convenience store that started at 7:30 a.m.

The judge proudly exclaimed, ""Before this, the only 7:30 that you ever saw was 7:30 pm."

Her enthusiasm for the program is infectious. Other judges have adopted her 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 made him repeat the phrase three times before allowing him to sit down.

And the participants pay attention. They seem to be thriving with the in loco parentis philosophy of the court. 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.

Even wayward defendants are given the benefit of the doubt and are not dismissed from the program for a minor infraction. 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, he presses participants for more accountability of their community service obligations or steps up the frequency of status updates.

In TCY, all the various parts of the criminal justice system seem to be on "Team Offender" and pulling for them to make it. Riker 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. 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."

Not only are the candidates staying out of jail, they have successfully reentered the community. Twenty-five out of 64 program participants are working at jobs such as parking lot attendants, barbers, construction workers, convenience store clerks and landscapers. They are thinking about becoming electricians, registered nurses, and tractor trailer drivers. With paying jobs, they are less likely to go back to drug dealing. Others are studying for their GED or attending college.

The one-time drug dealers are also required to give back to their communities to complete the program. They must volunteer at a local community center such as a park, recreational center, or church as part of the court mandated community service.

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, to the program participants in court that day. Sawyer, who served 8 years in Graterford Prison, helps former prisoners with reentry by teaching them filmmaking skills.

Sawyer told them, "I have found that filmmaking is a great way for those arrested to process what has happened to them."

JEVS shoulders the main responsibility for rehabilitating the offenders. Program participants are required to 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 will help 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.

TCY trainer Barry Johnson is confident that making placements will get easier as word of the success of the program spreads. As employers become familiar with the program, it will be easier to place new enrollees.

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

Barry Johnson, a Navy veteran who 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 during a courtroom break. "I escaped. I enlisted in the Navy. I did not get into trouble with the law. But some members of my family and neighbors did get into trouble, so I know what it takes to succeed."

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."

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."

According to Williams, the Philadelphia taxpayer might be the biggest winner. The cost of a TCY participant is $5,000 a year, while the annual tab for a prisoner in Pennsylvania is $40,000.

Riker estimates it would cost $350,000 to $500,000 annually to run the program and expand it to all those that are eligible. The higher $500,000 number would include devoting a single district attorney and public defender to the program. Williams is hoping to convince the legislature to provide funds.

With all the ancillary savings, he estimates that widespread adoption of the program could save taxpayers $7 million a year. The program lightens the court docket. A typical trial for cocaine distribution takes three or four days and requires at least a day of preparation. Updates for 30 TCY participants can be handled in a day.

The success of TCY is attracting national attention. The Urban Institute has been studying the program in hopes of emulating it across the country. The State Department has studied the program and hopes to export the idea to other countries. Last month, dignitaries from the Middle East and Africa, including the Vice President of the Supreme Appeal Court of Bahrain and Director of Penal Affairs of Tunisia, came to learn about the program.