College option to jail for lesser crimes

People charged with first-time nonviolent felonies will get an opportunity to go to college rather than jail under a program launched Monday by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and Community College of Philadelphia.

The "Future Forward" pilot, scheduled to begin in the spring with 10 to 15 students, is one of a growing number of alternative programs introduced by Williams to help those accused of lesser crimes turn their lives around.

The program is for defendants facing trials for nonviolent felonies, such as drug sales, forgery, car theft, and commercial burglary. No one previously convicted of a violent offense is eligible.

"We're going to give these people the opportunity," Williams said. "Instead of going to jail, go to college."

The effort is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, said Julius Lang, director of training and technical assistance at the Center for Court Innovation, a New York City nonprofit. He said he heard about the Philadelphia program at a national conference in Washington two weeks ago "and loved it."

"One of the major risk factors with reoffending is lack of employment . . . so focusing a program especially addressing that risk factor is just a smart thing to do," he said, "and to do it in a creative way where existing educational institutions like community colleges partner with the prosecutor's office and try to get potential employers to buy into this idea. This is what we need to see a lot more of in this country."

Williams, who said the idea came to him in the shower one day, wanted to give more Philadelphians a shot at higher education and at the same time keep their records clean and reduce recidivism.

Those eligible must be at least 24, have earned a high school diploma or GED, meet admission requirements, and have no more than one nonviolent misdemeanor conviction on their record.

"Instead of facing a trial and possible conviction, this program provides the opportunity for college credits and the possibility of a future which includes a college degree," CCP president Donald Guy Generals said in a statement.

Prospective students must be eligible to receive a federal Pell grant to cover tuition, college fees, textbooks and supplies - or have the means to pay themselves. Pell grants go to low-income students.

Once enrolled, students must complete 24 credits (eight courses) in a year, take "life skills" classes and go to a student support group. They also will be assigned a case manager and have their progress monitored during regular status hearings before Court of Common Pleas Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper.

After completing the program, if the students have not been arrested for one year, their criminal records will be expunged, Williams said.

Since Williams became district attorney in 2010, the number of alternative sentencing or pretrial diversion programs - including "The Choice is Yours" for nonviolent drug dealers - have doubled, said Assistant District Attorney Derek Riker. Future Forward will be the 16th such program.

More than 40 percent of adult misdemeanors are dealt with through diversion programs, he said. Seven percent to eight percent of felony cases are diverted.

Williams says intervention programs offering life and job skills, literacy training and counseling may cost only $4,000 or $5,000 while a year in prison costs $40,000.

CCP started a reentry program for former prisoners in 2010, largely spurred by Tara Timberman, an assistant professor of English, who had worked for the federal Bureau of Prisons. She is founder and coordinator of the program, which allows students to take their first-semester classes as a group.

"We recognized there was a need on the Community College of Philadelphia campus to provide support services to our students with criminal records," said Kathleen Smith, director of the college's Fox Rothschild Center for Law and Society.

The program also provides academic advising, counseling, and other support to others on campus with prior criminal records. Overall, more than 500 students have been served since 2010, Timberman said, including Jeff Copeland, who was congratulated by President Obama in July during a speech at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia. Copeland got help at the college after a series of DUI arrests.

Many students have done well, she said, while others have faced challenges, such as drug relapse.

The new effort, Smith said, gives individuals who have never been in prison a chance to make the best of a bad situation.

"They can take a very difficult, stressful life event and turn it into something positive," she said.

ShopRite stores run by Jeff Brown also will participate in the new program by considering the students for employment after their first semester or after they finish. Williams said Brown is a friend who employs many ex-offenders at his supermarkets.

"We believe that giving people the opportunity to advance their education and secure a career opportunity is a life-changing option," Brown said in a statement.

Students also will receive help with transportation.

"We will make sure that transportation or lack of a job won't be a hindrance," Williams said.

ssnyder@phillynews.com

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