Three years in, a look at Philadelphia’s drug felony diversion program

Listen

A decade ago, the idea of offering drug dealers help finding legitimate jobs and a reprieve from prison was a radical one. But a district attorney in San Francisco saw potential, and began the Back On Track initiative.

Philadelphia’s own program, The Choice is Yours, has been operating for three years with about 70 graduates to its credit.

A little over a year ago, Kareem Chapelle made a mistake.

“I did something stupid,” he said. “I was in my neighborhood selling drugs.”

Rather than jail time, though, he was offered an alternative: Do 220 hours of community service; work on finding employment; and check in every week for the next 13 months — and the charges would be dropped. If he stayed out of trouble with the police for another year, his record would be wiped clean.

Chapelle opted in.

Getting back on trackA decade ago, the idea of offering drug dealers help finding legitimate jobs and a reprieve from prison was a radical one. But a district attorney in San Francisco saw potential, and began the Back On Track initiative. Philadelphia’s own program, The Choice is Yours, has been operating for three years with about 70 graduates to his credit.

“If we can break that cycle, and help people make better choices going forward, we can avoid the revolving door of incarceration,” said Kristen Rantanen of JEVS Human Services, a nonprofit partnering with the city to run TCY.

For many, that means getting a decent job.

In November, Jarel Fisher joined TCY and, in the process, landed a position with a cleaning company. “It’s a good job,” he said. “It’s better than, you know, being out on the street doing nothing or causing trouble.”

The program is available only to those who are arrested for nonviolent, first-time drug offenses. Every one to three months, participants must appear in court so a judge can evaluate their progress.

According to Rantanen, TCY can cut down on recidivism, allow offenders to give back to their communities, and save money. About 90 percent complete the program, and it costs around $5,000 to $7,000 per participant, compared with $35,000 to $40,000 for a year of prison.

Saving lives”We’re saving the county money, and, hopefully, we’re saving lives at the same time,” said Nigel Bowe, the TCY program manager. Many of the young people, he said, need to improve the soft skills necessary for holding down a job, such as arriving for work on time. Others struggle with housing, child care, and transportation.

“They showed me a lot that I didn’t know,” said Christian Callazo, a recent graduate of the program, and a father of two. “A new way to handle life and to become a better person.”

Chapelle, too, has now graduated from the program. After starting a new job with PATCO last month, he said he’s proud to be able to better provide for his family. Without a felony conviction, he might be able to join the National Guard, as he once planned. 

Whether he makes it through to next July without getting in trouble isn’t clear, but he does have a better shot than most. Just 12 percent of the first cohort of TCY graduates were rearrested within a year, Rantanen said, compared with an expected rate of 40 percent for individuals with similar backgrounds.

“They gave me a second chance and I took advantage of it,” he said from inside the Philadelphia Municipal Courthouse  Monday. “You won’t see my face in here no more.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.