We Can Make Dallas Safer by Keeping Some Nonviolent Offenders Out of Jail

This May, in Judge Brandon Birmingham's court, a young man in his early 20s graduated from the Dallas County District Attorney's Office's AIM program, a pre-trial diversion program designed to help young, nonviolent offenders get back on track.Without this program, this young man — a first-time offender who was arrested for impersonating a police officer — might have gone to prison for up to 10 years. Without it, he would have been separated from his family and made felons his new peer group, many of whom committed crimes much more serious than his. Without it, he would have missed his son's first birthday. Without it, he would have emerged from prison a felon and worn that label permanently, making it hard to get a job and find a place to live.In many cases, prosecution and incarceration are not the best solution, especially when we are talking about young first-time offenders, non-violent offenders, or offenders with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness.In fact, many first-time and mentally ill offenders go to jail, at a cost to taxpayers of $20,000 per year, only to be released so they can live in poverty. These offenders leave jail with a high likelihood that they will either need government assistance or commit future offenses to support themselves.This is why, in 2015, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office created the Reformative Justice Unit, the nation's largest DA-driven diversion unit; AIM, the young offender program Judge Birmingham manages, is part of that unit.And now, the state Legislature is addressing these issues. In the most recent session, lawmakers passed a new "second chance" law allowing some first-time offenders with low-level offenses or certain DWI offenses to have their records sealed from public view. The thought behind this new law mirrors that of diversion: One bad decision should not ruin a life.The simple fact is that the tough-on-crime, mass incarceration approach to criminal justice has not made us safer. It is hurting our most at-risk communities by widening economic inequality, dividing families, and creating long-term employment and housing issues for so many first-time nonviolent offenders.A recent article in The Economist states that mass incarcerations have raised the poverty level in America by an estimated 20 percent. The same article reveals that as the incarceration rate fell from 2010 to 2015 in Alabama, crime in that state dropped by 15 percent.Diversion programs are the future backbone of the criminal justice system. These new programs and second chance laws are great first steps. Hopefully, next steps can include broadening their scopes to accommodate more nonviolent offenders, and increasing rehabilitative efforts and resources. We need to connect offenders with much needed counseling, drug and alcohol treatment programs, mental health services and even job placement programs.To get the most from these programs, we need to adopt this rehabilitative attitude on both sides of the bar. It's critical that the defense bar actively participates in making these programs and laws successful by making them accessible to offenders at every socioeconomic level.For example, our most at-risk communities are most in need of the "second chance" law, yet many of these offenders may not have the means to pay a defense attorney to go through the extra steps of sealing their criminal record. There are many first-time offenders who may be having a hard time getting a job or housing right now due to their offense.Since this law is retroactive, these are people we can help today. But these opportunities shouldn't depend on a person's ability to pay a premium for legal services. These opportunities should be available to everyone who qualifies.The criminal justice system exists not only to keep us safe as people, but also to protect our communities and to keep them whole. Aside from our education system, the criminal justice system can have the greatest impact on America's future by addressing the big issues of economic equality and opportunity.We've taken the first steps towards this positive turnaround in Dallas County. Let's keep the momentum going.Messina Madson is former first assistant district attorney and currently a private practice attorney. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News. Email: messina@madsoncastello.comWhat's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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