First time offenders find new hope in Philly
A program started by the city’s District Attorney Office in 2012 continues to change lives, allowing some first-time nonviolent felony offenders to choose a diploma instead of a prison sentence.
For Nicole Sanchez Ortiz, The Choice is Yours diversionary program was her lifeline when she was charged with her first felony offense in June 2017 due to drug activities.
The program, which gives first-time nonviolent offenders the opportunity to complete a high school diploma program, was a way out of a felony offense that would have meant time in prison and the permanent chain of a criminal record that would have lifelong consequences, making it more difficult to find a secure job and advance in a career.
But even so, Sanchez Ortiz was at first skeptical of the program’s benefits.
“When I first entered the program I always had a negative vibe, was always giving people attitude. I wasn’t looking forward to being in the program every day, just sit there and listen to people. But it actually did change my life within months,” she said.
Sitting and watching preparations for the TCY graduation ceremony for her class one day in May, Sanchez Ortiz had tears come to her eyes as she described the impact the TCY program has had on her life.
“They push you to do better. They help you find jobs, get your high school diploma...It’s just an amazing program. And the staff is very supportive,” Sanchez Ortiz said. “They helped me change my whole energy, my whole vibe...I’m a total different person. From where I started to where I’m at now.”
The Choice is Yours (TCY), run by JEVS Human Services, is designed to allow first-time felony offenders of nonviolent crimes to participate in the TCY and Penn Foster diploma completion program instead of serving jail time. All participants were facing prison sentences as first-time drug sellers.
The program, started in 2012 by then-District Attorney Seth Williams, was modeled on the Back on Track program in San Francisco which then-District Attorney Kamala Harris had begun. The goal, apart from giving nonviolent offenders a new start, is to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates overall and promote rehabilitation in more effective ways. So far, it touts an 85 percent completion rate and a 13 percent recidivism rate at one-year post graduation — a notable drop-off compared to the 40 to 60 percent recidivism rates for those charged with similar offenses throughout the city.
After completion of the program, the graduates have all of their criminal charges dropped and with the possibility of expungement one year after TCY graduation. This year’s graduating class of seven included three Latino students, the most for one graduating class in the program’s history.
Like Sanchez Ortiz, Shartelle Martinez was convicted of a drug felony. But her now nine-year-old daughter became her reason to continue and pursue a degree through the TCY program.
“She was actually my motivation. To keep pushing and keep forward. In a school way, in the program, to make sure that I could succeed,” Martinez said of her daughter.
Martinez, who started taking classes in 2016 and spoke as the salutatorian at the graduation ceremony this May, said that Alberta Lloyd, the education enhancement, life skills, and job readiness instructor for The Choice is Yours, was particularly important to her as a role model and mentor.
“Miss Alberta helped us out a lot. She got us to where we are today,” Martinez said, adding that it was her mentor’s patience but also the high expectations she had for her students which helped her persevere in the program and reach graduation as she now looks toward pursuing a degree in nursing in the future.
Lloyd helps with “employment, employment training, and also with education if they want to get their high school diploma or continue their education in terms of trade school or college.”
After having experienced homelessness herself twice, Lloyd said that she brings a deeper understanding of the students she teaches in TCY to the classroom.
“Right outside these doors, I slept on the streets of Philadelphia...So ever since then I’ve just had a drive and a passion to help people,” Lloyd said at this year’s graduation ceremony at City Hall.
“It’s really important...not only to understand them in terms of their academic and education needs, but also understand them as human beings and as people,” Lloyd added. “And know that they’re going to go through triumphs and they’re going to go through ups and downs and that you need someone in that room that’s going to be compassionate, that’s going to be understanding, but that’s not going to let them stay stuck in that situation or let them stay stuck in that mindset but that’s going to push them and compel them to go on with their lives.”
Many of the graduates see completion of the program and getting their high school diploma as the first step on the way to achieving their goals.
After her graduation, Sanchez Ortiz plans to go to trade school to be a hair stylist and open her own salon.
“Those are my goals, and I’m going to accomplish them, just like I accomplished getting my high school diploma,” Sanchez Ortiz said.