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Government, Politics & Issues

Amid rising crime numbers, city prosecutors turn toward second chances

Susannah Lohr | St. Louis Public Radio

On Nov. 6, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen officially accepted federal funding to help the circuit attorney's office develop a program to help certain individuals avoid a felony gun conviction.

The money for the gun program will allow prosecutors to hire a crime analyst, to determine who will be a good candidate for such a diversion program, and a social service manager, to determine what services a defendant might need. 

The office is already using existing staff to operate the Felony Redirect Program, targeted at those charged with nonviolent crimes. So far, about 10 defendants are enrolled, and about an equal number are expected to enter the program before the year ends.

So, what's behind the move toward second chances?

What is diversion?

"We were trying to develop a grand scheme to deal with what we're seeing outside our windows, which is gun violence," said Pippa Barrett, the director of diversion and special court programs for the circuit attorney's office. "Along the way, we realized that looking at the particular offender more closely is going to help usually figure out who is causing the most damage out there. But we also realized that you have to figure out who has really just stepped into the puddle of criminal violence, and maybe we can pull them back a little bit." 

The Felony Redirect Program is modeled on the concept of "problem-solving courts," such as onse set up for people with mental health or drug addiction issues. There are a series of sanctions and benefits, but participants also get the resources they need, such as education or job training.

Who is eligible?

The prosecutor decides on a case-by-case basis. Eligible defendants have a minimal criminal history - no arrests for violent crimes or domestic violence, and no misdemeanor convictions. They must be charged with a nonviolent crime and cannot have participated in other diversion programs like drug court.

"It's applicants of all ages who have made a mistake and are looking for a chance to change," Barrett said.

The guidelines haven't been established yet for the gun diversion program, but those selected as expected to be people who are carrying a weapon for protection, out of ignorance or for social status.

How does it work?

Defendants who want to participate have to plead guilty to the crime for which they have been charged. Once in, the defendant meets with a state probation officer, who helps determine his or her specific needs. The defendants then meet weekly with Michael Mullen, the judge overseeing the felony redirect program.

"What we’ve been doing hasn’t been extremely successful. And I think this is just another way of looking at it that other jurisdictions have had success with. Just throwing money at things, and putting people in jail or prison isn’t always the answer," said Mullen.

If the defendant successfully completes all of the diversion requirements, the guilty plea is dropped from his or her record.

What's the upside?

"They can truthfully say they have never pled guilty to a crime," said Barrett. "They can vote. They can ostensibly get a job, where someone might not otherwise hire someone who has a felony conviction. It opens up their options."

The community organization 28 to Life is helping connect the defendants to resources such as job training and education, said co-founder Bruce Franks. Each participant also gets a mentor and a life coach.

"We check on them every day; we text back and forth; we talk back and forth; we met up three, four times a week. If they need something, they know they can call us," said Franks.

He believes the program will save lives by providing young black men with mentors and role models.

Franks said they know that the people will still be living in the same areas, often hanging with the same friends. The object is not to change the environment but to "change the people."

But even more importantly, Franks said, the effort can help reduce the us-versus-them mentality.

"A second-chance program implemented by the prosecuting attorney’s office, that’s showing young black men they're not just out to arrest us. It’s showing that there are people out there on the other side that want to help," he said.

The program could also help save money by reducing the number of individuals in jail and prison, though Barrett said that's not the program's focus.

What's the downside?

Because diversion defendants have already pleaded guilty, they can be sentenced for the original crime. The program isn't designed to be easy: One defendant who pleaded guilty to burglary and theft charges has had problems with the reporting requirements, and another charged with drug possession failed a urine test. So far, judge Mullen and Pippa Barrett, the prosecutor, seem willing to take incremental steps first, such as shock time.

As with any new program, there's a lot of uncertainty about what it's going to look like.

"My initial reaction was one of optimism and skepticism at the same time," said public defender Patrick Kutz, who is representing a 19-year-old charged with burglary and theft, the first person to enter the program. "We're looking for every opportunity that will better serve clients, but we didn't know many of the specifics, like who was controlling the program."

Kutz said he's still not completely convinced the program will be a success. He is concerned that the prosecutor's office remains the gatekeeper, and that there's no end date yet for his client, although Barrett has told him she does not want the program to be open-ended. But he said he believes everyone is acting in good faith.

"Speaking with Judge Mullen, the first thing he told my client was, everyone is trying to feel their way through this. And it’s going to be like that with any new program that doesn’t have a model to follow. So I understand that, and I expect that," Kutz said.

Barrett said she knows and accepts that some felony redirect participant will probably commit another crime while in the program.

"It’s worth it for every person who succeeds," she said. "There may be that one person, or two people, or whatever, those people who don’t make it through. We’ve still given them the chance to do that. That’s valid."

Does it work?

Every problem-solving court is a bit different, so there's been no review of the program in St. Louis specifically. But research from other diversion programs show a number of reasons for optimism.

  • The Philadelphia district attorney has operated "The Choice Is Yours" since 2012, targeting first-time nonviolent felony drug dealers. A 2013 report by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center found that "most participants were optimistic that TCY activities would enable them to avoid incarceration, while creating better futures for themselves and their families." As of June 30, 2013, just three of the 65 individuals who enrolled in the program had been re-arrested.
  • In 2000, a coalition including the city of New York, New York State Unified Court System, the Center for Court Innovation, the district attorney in Brooklyn, Legal Aid Society of New York and a number of other nonprofit and governmental organizations opened the Red Hook Community Justice Center. A report from the National Center for State Courts, also released in 2013, found that adults arrested for misdemeanor offenses who had their cases handled at the community court were less likely to re-offend than those who had their cases handled elsewhere. Juvenile offenders were also less likely to be arrested again in two years if their cases were handled at the justice center.
  • The Department of Justice is conducting a multi-site, multi-year study of re-entry courts, designed to help those who have been in prison return to society. Though researchers have not yet begun to evaluate the outcomes of those courts, they have found that "although participants were often unclear about what they were getting involved in before they began participation in re-entry court, most felt very positively about the program. In most courts, participants expressed positive attitudes toward re-entry court staff members, particularly the judge."

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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