In March 2014, Rose Marie Hewitt was pulled over in St. Louis, where she lived at the time. Police found Vicodin in an unmarked bottle — narcotics Hewitt says she was holding for her boyfriend at the time to keep him from taking too many.
Police charged her with two counts of drug possession. "And that's a felony," she said.
Hewitt originally wanted to take her case to trial. But her lawyer told her that would probably result in two years of probation and a criminal record. Instead, she took a chance on the circuit attorney's Felony Redirect Program.
Defendants who are selected for the program, which accepted its first participants in October 2015, have been charged with nonviolent felonies. They must plead guilty to the crime and follow probation-like guidelines. In Hewitt's case, that meant community service and substance abuse classes. The benefit? Unlike traditional probation, defendants who complete the redirect program have the felony charge wiped from their record. For Hewitt, that was a huge selling point.
"I've got a great record, and I don't want it tarnished," she said.
As of Wednesday, Hewitt can officially say she has never been charged with a crime. To a standing ovation, she walked out of Judge Michael Mullen's first-floor courtroom as the first graduate of the Felony Redirect Program.
"The difference is obvious," Mullen told Hewitt. "It's like you're a new person."
Hewitt said she is glad she chose the redirect program.
"I’ve learned from it. I’ve grown from it. It renewed my faith in humanity," she said.
To pay it forward, Hewitt wants to come back and mentor the 15 defendants currently enrolled in the program. Pippa Barrett, the prosecutor in charge of Felony Redirect, said she'd welcome Hewitt with open arms.
"We really like her a lot as a person," Barrett said.
She said Hewitt's graduation can help the others stay on track.
“The program is a year long. A year is a big chunk of time out of anybody’s life," she said. "So if somebody is in the program and they are hardly able to look a couple of days in advance, it becomes very hard to look to that year and see where they’re trying to get to. What we saw today was the end triumph of someone who got to that mile marker."
So far, 23 defendants have been screened for felony redirect, Barrett said. Four were dropped from the program for various reasons, and three more have yet to start. But the remaining 15 are progressing well.
"The trick to this is getting to know people individually," Barrett said. "Historically, prosecutors haven't done that. You charged a person, that person became a defendant, and then you started looking at a case, how can you prove a person guilty. This is different. You learn almost intimate details about these folks."
The circuit attorney's office received no new money to run the felony redirect program. Barrett said those funding limitations prevent her from expanding it much beyond 35 people.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann