A chance to get on the right track for one Philly teen

Attorney Damian Sammons tells his client Shawn Yarbrough that after months of being denied a diversionary program for charges stemming from a school fight in 2014, the district attorney’s office accepted him into another that could potentially keep his adult record clean. ( Helen Ubiñas / Staff )

GOOD NEWS. The Philly teenager I've been writing about since May, the kid trying to avoid a criminal record, has a chance to get his life on the job track instead of the jail track.

After more than a year of back and forth in court while the District Attorney's Office denied repeated requests into the accelerated rehabilitation disposition program - ARD - it took less than a minute yesterday for the D.A.'s office to agree to another program that is less intense.

If Shawn Yarbrough completes the requirements of an accelerated misdemeanor program - AMP - which includes 40 hours of community service, anger-management classes and court costs, he may keep himself from replaying a well-known scenario in this city: Kid gets in trouble, kid has a record, kid's life is ruined.

That's why Yarbrough's court appointed lawyer, Damian Sammons, couldn't let this case go - even if Yarbrough didn't always seem to get it.

"I'm not just representing him at this age," Sammons said of his client when we first met. "I'm trying to represent the man I hope he will become."

I'm thrilled this worked out, and fingers crossed that Yarbrough, who turns 20 next month, realizes how lucky he got with a lawyer who cared enough to push against illogical bureaucracy.

But I still walked out of court yesterday wondering why this case had to cost everyone involved so much time and effort - not to mention taxpayer money.

And why did it have to be so Kafkaesque? After refusing to give Yarbrough nine to 12 months of probation in one diversionary program, authorities seemed more than willing to give him 40 hours of community service.

Yarbrough was arrested last year with other students at South Philadelphia High School when a fight broke out inside a second-floor hallway. Of the students arrested that afternoon, only he and one other teen were charged with misdemeanors.

Both were charged with disorderly conduct and failure to disperse, but while Yarbrough's classmate was accepted into the ARD program, Yarbrough was inexplicably and repeatedly rejected.


Neither had ever been arrested as adults, but Yarbrough was arrested twice as a juvenile. The first case, over an altercation with a girl whose phone he took, was withdrawn by prosecutors. In the second, for vandalism, he was ordered to do community service and given probation.

Readers were quick to say that he had his chance, too bad. Except several lawyers I turned to when I couldn't get answers from the D.A.'s office told me that clients with much worse juvenile records have received ARD. And that included Guy Garant, a prosecutor who used to run the ARD program and who told me that, given the information, Yarbrough "would more than likely be eligible when I was there."

But no one was budging, which is why I wondered in my last column if there was something personal behind all the resources spent over one school fight.

Then last week, Sammons asked Derek Riker, chief of the Diversions Court Unit, if he'd consider Yarbrough for the accelerated misdemeanor program.

This time, Riker said yes.

Cameron Kline, spokesman for the D.A.'s office, pointed out differences in the programs when I suggested that the change of heart was curious.

"One important difference between ARD and AMP is that ARD is supervised by a parole officer and AMP is supervised by a judge, which brings with it a higher level of accountability," he said in an email. "In fact, the judge can immediately issue a sentence if the defendant fails to complete his or her agreement, something a parole officer cannot do."

Either way, if the defendant doesn't comply, he has to pay.

But I don't blame Kline for making my head hurt. I blame his bosses, who refused to explain or own up to their decisions, which seem arbitrary.

Best - for now - to celebrate this hard-earned win.

"Today, Shawn Yarbrough was accepted into one of the available diversionary programs that he was arbitrarily denied entry into for so long," Sammons said. "He has a job that is pending his completion of the program and an entire life ahead of him. A lot of concerned citizens in this town have been pulling for him over the course of the last few weeks. I'm hoping he lives up to all the good will we've put into him."

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

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