Mimesis Law
8 December 2019

Philly Program Offers Defendants A Few Very Lucky Breaks

Dec. 9, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — A new program in Philadelphia is intended to send certain criminal defendants to college:

Philadelphia prosecutors on Monday announced a pilot program that gives people charged with nonviolent felonies a chance to attend college classes as an alternative to going to trial.

The program, titled “Future Forward,” is the first in the United States to offer college credit as part of pretrial diversion, Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams said.

Whenever someone “bad” gets some sort of benefit, there are going to be people who are upset about it. This will surely be no different. In fact, I can just hear the angry mob of law and order types now: “my kid has to work instead of going to college, so why should some criminal get what my kid doesn’t?” Or maybe this: “it’s like we’re rewarding them for crime!”

The article later describes another aspect sure to anger some:

In addition, candidates must be eligible for federal financial aid, which is intended to cover the tuition and other educational expenses.

Add this one to the list of gripes: “my federal tax dollars are going to educate law breakers now?”

What it comes down to is that, for many people, doing something nice for anyone is deeply troubling. They linger on people who aren’t getting the same benefit. When the lucky ones happen to have pending felony charges too, I can’t imagine they won’t have even stronger feelings about it. The same people who hate the idea of anyone getting anything for free are often the same people who think that anything but the worst for alleged criminals is a miscarriage of justice.

Luckily, the district attorney can at least articulate why he wants to do it:

“We all know that crime goes up when people can’t gain access to the classroom, so we’re going to break that cycle,” he said in a statement.

It certainly sounds logical to me. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the system here who thinks our current punishment options are doing a great job addressing recidivism.

Jail and prison certainly don’t improve the people we send away. Sure, we pretend the in-custody classes on drugs or parenting or anger management are helpful, but the average inmate spends a lot more time with other inmates than with counselors. The mindset it takes to cope with incarceration is not exactly the healthiest mindset for being a free, law-abiding and productive member of society.

Desensitization to aggression and violence isn’t uncommon, and the effects don’t disappear the moment someone leaves. Even offenders lucky enough to get probation aren’t always in the best position. It can work, but the fees are tough for many people. The terms can be inconsistent and even impossible. Some probation officers are micromanagers on a power trip, a recipe for failure. For those who avoid probation as well, paying a fine is not exactly an edifying experience.

A defendant’s sentencing options suck not just for the defendant but for the public, so the district attorney’s reasoning makes sense. If we educate people, maybe they won’t get caught up in the system again. I think there may be a rub, though:

Eligible defendants must be at least 24 years old with a high school or equivalent degree. They must also be charged with a non-violent offense and cannot have any prior violent convictions or more than one prior non-violent misdemeanor.

Why they chose to exempt people between the ages of 18 to 23 is beyond me, but that’s not the big pitfall I see. The problem I see involves the conditions for eligibility.

It’s easy to draw the line at violent offenders or those with prior criminal history, but in practice, those sorts of conditions can become pretty limiting given the ridiculous scope of what gets labelled “violent” or counts as a misdemeanor. In programs with similar requirements where I practice, I’ve seen clients turned away due to violent priors that amounted to smashing a banana or breaking their own cell phones or umbrellas during an argument. People also love to claim drug crimes, DUIs and who knows what else are “violent” based on various theories about potential harm despite the lack of actual physical force or intent to harm. Someone with two misdemeanor traffic convictions, something they give away like candy here in Arizona, would presumably be ineligible for the program too.

It may be that Philadelphia’s great new program ends up just as empty as who knows how many well-intentioned programs where I practice. They’re fantastic opportunities almost no one gets to seize due to prosecutors’ love of overcharging and a general desire to exempt certain groups of people from ever catching a break. It’s sad, really.

The article fleshes out how the program is going to work:

During the year-long program, participants will earn credits at the Community College of Philadelphia, take life skills classes and join a student support group. Sheila Woods-Skipper, the president judge of Philadelphia’s court of common pleas, will monitor the defendants’ progress through regular court hearings.

If the participants complete the program and are not arrested during the year, their records will be expunged.

“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,” said Donald Generals, the college’s president.

It really does sound like the perfect thing for many defendants. Unfortunately, my guesses about the lack of a lot of eligible defendants might be right:

A spokesman for Williams’ office said prosecutors were aiming for 15 defendants for the program’s first year and had already identified several candidates.

It’ll be great for those lucky 15 defendants, but that’s an awfully small number for a jurisdiction the size of Philadelphia.

Hopefully it grows. More importantly, hopefully none of those 15 people reoffend or, god forbid, commit a crime at college or against their classmates. These sorts of meaningful changes to the criminal justice system take a lot of resolve. Rather than understand that some people will mess up but that pulling the program would have a net negative effect, the default these days seems to be that we’d rather deny countless defendants something that would help them and also society as a whole than give one undeserving asshole a benefit he abused. It’s why these sorts of programs exist on such thin ice.

I’m always skeptical about things like this, as they never seem as good in practice as they do when they’re announced. Regardless, we should be applauding Philadelphia for trying it.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Eva
    9 December 2015 at 10:39 am - Reply

    People should realize if you don’t educate those young non-violent offenders their options for a better life are pretty much slim to none.

    It’s either educate those kids so they can be a contributing member of society or barracade your stuff because they will probably steal your sh*t to survive.

  • MoButterMoBetta
    9 December 2015 at 11:43 am - Reply

    “Why they chose to exempt people between the ages of 18 to 23 is beyond me…”

    Federal financial aid treats students differently once they reach age 24. The student is then considered an “Independent Student” and financial aid is considered based on the income of the student and not the parents.