First-time offenders taking city up on a second chance with Choice is Yours program

When District Attorney Seth Williams was initially campaigning for the office, he promised to give back to the community. As a down payment on that promise, Williams launched The Choice Is Yours (TCY) last February. TCY is an innovative diversionary program for first-time, non-violent offenders ages 18-29 who have been charged with possession with intent to distribute 2 to 20 grams of powder or crack cocaine.

While the program is still young, TCY has greatly exceeded expectations, with only a 10 percent recidivism rate, according to early figures.

In a wide-ranging interview on Saturday, Williams made it clear that he believes in taking a “holistic” and “smart on crime” approach to fighting crime by adapting the “best practices” in the national law enforcement for Philadelphia.

Williams is focusing his office’s efforts on public safety, not prosecutions.

TCY’s pilot program, which was funded primarily by a $1.3 million grant from the Lenfest Foundation and William Penn Foundation, is modeled after San Francisco’s Back on Track program. It allows participants, who are facing one to two years in prison, to wipe their criminal slate clean after completing an arduous program.

The ringmaster of TCY is Judge Marsha Neifield, whose hearings in Courtroom 305 more resemble a collaborative graduate seminar than an adversarial courtroom proceeding. She practically burst with pride at the ability of one candidate to hold a job that started at 7:30 a.m.

She had previously assigned her to write an essay on the virtues of punctuality due to her constant tardiness.

“Before this, the only 7:30 that you ever saw was 7:30 p.m.,” she noted.

The youth in the program seem to appreciate the second chance — and surprisingly, quite a few relished the discipline.

“TCY got me off the streets. I wake up in the morning and know where I have to go,” says one participant who, given the nature of the program, asked not to be identified.

Parents, too, are grateful for the opportunities that the program offers. “TCY is a gift from God,” said one mother. “My son is 18. He had never been in trouble before and now he has a chance to start over.”

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