Fighting the school-to-prison pipeline one kid at a time

Attorney Damian M. Sammons is representing a young man who was arrested for a fight inside a school last year. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

THE EASIEST THING for court-appointed attorney Damian Sammons to do would be to get the best deal he could for his client and move on.

Sammons juggles about 100 cases at any given time, so one where a client is facing a couple years in jail for a school fight, but will likely get probation, wouldn't seem worth his trouble to challenge. Especially since his attempts to get his client into a diversionary program that could wipe his record clean had been denied.

Hey, he tried, right?

It's a scenario that plays out in this city all the time. But so do its lasting effects: A kid gets in trouble, gets a criminal record and suddenly his life is ruined.

That's why Sammons can't let this go - even if his 19-year-old client, Shawn Yarbrough, doesn't completely understand why.

"I just want to move on," Yarbrough said.

Sammons wasn't surprised when I told him his client felt he might be wasting his lawyer's time.

"I know he doesn't understand," Sammons said. "He's a kid. He's 19, and he doesn't understand how the world works. Once you have a criminal record, employers are hesitant to hire you; doors that may have been open to you continually close. You can't see that future at 19 years old. You think everything is just somehow automatically going to work out.

"The thing is, I'm not just representing him at this age. I'm trying to represent the man I hope he will become. That man is going to look back 20 years from now and he'll be glad that someone cared enough to try and prevent him from having a criminal record."

Last March, Yarbrough was arrested with a bunch of other students at South Philadelphia High School when a fight broke out inside a second-floor hallway.

Of all the students arrested that afternoon, only he and another young man were ultimately charged with misdemeanors after a judge threw out the other cases for lack of evidence.

On paper, the two look similar. Both were charged with disorderly conduct and failure to disperse. Neither had ever been arrested as adults. Yarbrough was arrested twice as a juvenile. One case, where he got into an altercation with a girl and took her phone, was withdrawn by prosecutors. In the other, for vandalism, he was ordered to do community service and given probation.

But while Yarbrough's classmate was accepted into the district attorney's accelerated rehabilitation disposition program - ARD - Yarbrough was repeatedly denied, and Sammons hasn't been able to get a clear explanation why. A juvenile record is taken into consideration, but several attorneys I spoke with said clients with much worse on their records have received ARD.

"Am I missing something?" Sammons asked several people at the District Attorney's Office, where he worked for more than five years before becoming a defense attorney.

"Trust me," he later told me, "if I knew there was a good reason, I would not be pushing this hard."

If there is a good reason, it's not lost only on Sammons, but to other lawyers I talked to - especially since the D.A.'s office is always talking about ways to keep first-time offenders out of court and prison.

Derek Riker, who runs the ARD program, was too busy to talk to me. Cameron Kline, a spokesman for the D.A.'s office, would only say that each case is carefully reviewed on its merits.

So I shared the details with other attorneys in hopes of making sense of it all.

Brian Fishman, the court-appointed attorney for the other student in what he called "the dumbest criminal case of all times," said he assumed both young men would receive ARD. "It was a school fight," he said.

Guy Garant, a prosecutor for more than 20 years who previously ran the ARD program, said given the information, Yarbrough "would more than likely be eligible when I was there."

So what's the deal?

"There is no rhyme or reason," Sammons said. "It feels arbitrary."

After hearing nothing for months, Sammons said Assistant D.A. Lauren Realberg recently claimed Yarbrough was denied because he was the oldest of the students - he is, by five months - the ringleader and because the fight was likely gang-related. But Sammons said she offered no evidence to back that up and nothing in the police report or the transcript of the preliminary hearing, where several of the school police officers testified, suggest that, either.

When I visited Yarbrough in the home he shares with his mom, uncle and siblings, he struck me as a typical teen - equal parts dreamer and knucklehead. He admitted to getting into some neighborhood beefs, and not always making the best choices. But since getting his diploma, he said he's completed an electrical training program and is waiting on a background check for a possible job at the airport.

"I have a lot of plans, a lot of dreams," Yarbrough said.

But first, he is scheduled to be back in court on Monday.





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