Street crime or success: the choice is theirs

A look at The Choice is Yours, a pro­gram that gives first-time non­vi­ol­ent drug of­fend­ers in the city the chance to avoid jail and learn ca­reer and so­cial skills.

Kens­ing­ton res­id­ent Guillermo Soto says he feels as though his life has been saved.

The 21 year-old, who lives on Al­legheny Av­en­ue, could have ended up in pris­on. As a non­vi­ol­ent first-time of­fend­er ar­res­ted on drug-re­lated charges, Soto had a choice—either be­come yet an­oth­er Phil­adelphi­an on pro­ba­tion, pa­role or in pris­on, or give a pro­gram called The Choice is Yours a shot.

He said that he has made the right choice.

The Choice is Yours (TCY) di­ver­sion­ary pro­gram provides edu­ca­tion and work­force train­ing to cer­tain non­vi­ol­ent de­fend­ants in the city and gives them a chance to avoid pris­on sen­tences. It is the vis­ion of Phil­adelphia Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Wil­li­ams, who was in­spired by the Back on Track di­ver­sion­ary pro­gram in San Fran­cisco.

The Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice de­veloped TCY along with Phil­adelphia-based non­profit Pub­lic/Private Ven­tures (P/PV). JEVS Hu­man Ser­vices is the lead im­ple­ment­ing agency, and the Cen­ter for Lit­er­acy and the Pennsylvania Pris­on So­ci­ety are part­ners. The pro­gram cur­rently op­er­ates out of 112 N. Broad St.

When the pro­gram was launched Feb­ru­ary 27 at the Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter, Soto was among the first par­ti­cipants.

He said the pro­gram has ex­ceeded every ex­pect­a­tion.

“I’m get­ting a lot of be­ne­fits out of it,” he said. In a let­ter he wrote about TCY, he said, “The pro­gram has giv­en me an op­por­tun­ity to bet­ter my­self.”

Nigel Bowe, TCY’s pro­gram man­ager, said Phil­adelphia was in need of such a pro­gram.

“I know the alarm­ing stat­ist­ics as far as how many people in this city are either in­car­cer­ated, on pro­ba­tion or on pa­role,” he said.

Eco­nom­ic­ally, Bowe said, TCY is also cheap­er than in­car­cer­a­tion. In a state­ment about TCY by the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice, it states that while it costs $40,000 per year to keep someone in pris­on, TCY only costs $5,000 to $8,000 per year per par­ti­cipant. All pro­gram costs are be­ing paid by dona­tions from the Len­fest and Wil­li­am Penn Found­a­tions.

Bowe said that TCY par­ti­cipants, most of which range in age from 18-24, found them­selves un­der ar­rest for a vari­ety of reas­ons.

“I think people who are non­vi­ol­ent first-time of­fend­ers are [selling drugs] as a reas­on to sur­vive,” he said.

He said that most of the par­ti­cipants lack job skills or a sup­port sys­tem in their lives.

TCY seeks to change that.

Par­ti­cipants are re­ferred to TCY by the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice after they are ar­res­ted, and only if they fall un­der cer­tain cri­ter­ia—for in­stance, they can only have one non­vi­ol­ent mis­de­mean­or on their re­cord.

The pro­gram be­gins with a five-week ori­ent­a­tion peri­od in which par­ti­cipants are trained in job read­i­ness, edu­ca­tion en­hance­ment, and the cre­ation of an In­di­vidu­al Life Plan, an ILP. TCY tail­ors ILPs very spe­cific­ally to each in­di­vidu­al.

Soto’s life plan in­cludes col­lege, the mil­it­ary and po­lice work.

He said his aunts and uncles were po­lice of­fers in Pu­erto Rico, and oth­er fam­ily mem­bers are in the Army, Air Force and Mar­ines. He said he plans on en­rolling in the Com­munity Col­lege of Phil­adelphia after he gradu­ates TCY in Feb­ru­ary.

“I’ll prob­ably start col­lege, get cred­its and join the Army,” he said. “I want to study crim­in­al justice for two years and then psy­cho­logy for two years.”

Giv­en that any con­vic­tions on his re­cord would jeop­ard­ize his mil­it­ary ser­vice, he knows how for­tu­nate he is to be in TCY.

“This is a life-saver right here,” Soto said.

Pro­gram dir­ect­or Bowe agrees.

“Hope­fully we’re cre­at­ing a safer city and safer neigh­bor­hoods,” he said. “But we’re also sav­ing lives, fam­il­ies and kids—some of these guys are fath­ers.”

Once par­ti­cipants are fully en­rolled in the 12-month pro­gram, they con­tin­ue with their train­ing and com­munity ser­vice work such as park or graf­fiti cleanups.

The biggest chal­lenge, Bowe said, is know­ing that the par­ti­cipants leave each day and re­turn to the same people and neigh­bor­hoods they have al­ways known—the places where they found them­selves in trouble.

“I tell them, be mind­ful of all the obstacles… all the things out there that could trip you up,” Bowe said.

Soto, though, might be luck­i­er than most. He said he doesn’t feel like it’s tough to re­turn to fa­mil­i­ar places in Kens­ing­ton, since he now knows there are al­tern­at­ives to selling drugs.

“Some­times, it’s tempt­ing, if I don’t have money,” he said. “But I over­come that.”

He said his friends re­spect that he’s a part of the pro­gram.

“They say, ‘Man, that’s what’s up. Keep it up,’” he said.

Soto will also guide the next group of par­ti­cipants as they be­gin the pro­gram. He will be re­spons­ible for ex­plain­ing how it works and what he went through in TCY.

When asked how that re­spons­ib­il­ity made him feel, Soto smiled.

“I feel like a lead­er,” he said.

Learn more about JEVS’ ef­forts at www.jevshumanser­, and read about TCY on the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice webpage,­trictat­tor­ney.

Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at mjam­is­

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