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Program that keeps first-time offenders out of jail may shut down

Can Philly afford not to fund a prison diversion program?

WHEN Felek McCrae was in court on drug charges, someone handed him a pamphlet for "The Choice is Yours."

The choice? An intensive yearlong program that helps young, first-time, nonviolent drug offenders stay out of prison.

McCrae passed on the program. He thought he'd beat the case. He knew "a brother who knew another brother who knew another brother who could get him off," he recalled with a laugh.

But when he saw the look on his lawyer's face, 28-year-old McCrae knew that no brother was going to get him out of this mess.

He had kids to support. Bills to pay. Future plans that didn't include years lost behind bars.

About that program . . .

"At first I thought it was a gimmick, I'll be honest with you," McCrae said. "But once they started breaking it down, I thought it wasn't too much to ask for helping me get my life on track. I needed to be home."

Not that it was easy. Participants who've been charged with possession of 2 to 10 grams of powder or crack cocaine with intent to distribute first have to plead guilty. Then they have to complete an intense 13-month counseling, education and job-training program run by Jewish Employment Vocational Services. They also have to do 220 hours of community service and pay related court costs.

If they complete the program, the criminal charges against them are dropped. If they stay out of trouble for an additional year, their criminal records are expunged.

One of the hardest parts? "Waking up early," said McCrae, who now works at a supermarket.

Of the 68 young men and women who have enrolled, 57, or 84 percent, have successfully completed the program, which Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams modeled after a San Francisco program in 2012.

Small but promising results in a city with a recidivism rate that hovers around 60 percent and where about one-fifth of the population - about 300,000 people - has a criminal record.

The results are even more impressive when you consider the cost of the program, about $5,000 per participant vs. about $40,000 annually to keep one of them behind bars.

So you might be surprised to know that without more funding, the program that offers young offenders a chance to wipe their criminal slates clean won't last much past June. I know I was.

In a city with no lack of good programs, but a lack of money to support them, I get that tough choices have to made: Fund this. Don't fund that. Sometimes we make the right choice. Sometimes we don't.

Not continuing to fund this program, at about $800,000, would be the wrong choice.

The pilot program was given a generous startup donation by the Lenfest and William Penn foundations. But now, the program is running out of money. Although the D.A. and public defender have assigned personnel to help administer it and Judge Marsha Neifield oversees it, there's just not a lot of spare money in anyone's budget to fully fund the program.

Jewish Employment Vocational Services has raised some money to keep it going and is looking for additional funding. But in the meantime, they've scaled back staff and reduced the number of participants. And if the funding gods don't smile down on them soon, it's over.

"It would be a real shame," program manager Nigel Bowe said. "Participants are going through the program and succeeding. They're going back to school, they're getting jobs. They're getting their lives on track."

Unlike McCrae, Guillermo Soto, 23, didn't think twice when he was offered the program when he faced drug charges. He didn't want a criminal record to keep him from fulfilling his childhood dream of joining the Army.

As he awaits expungement of his charges, he's taking criminal-justice classes at Community College of Philadelphia and working full time.

"It's not just a name," he said. "This really does give you a choice for a second chance."

The big question at program headquarters is: Can we afford to keep going?

But the question a city with thousands of ex-offenders struggling to rebuild their lives should really ask: Can we afford for them not to?

The choice is yours, Philly.