Families are fighting to save the Dallas police First Offender Program, which was eliminated in the city manager’s budget plan for October.
Supporters say the 35-year-old crime prevention program has saved thousands of kids from getting in trouble again and saved police the trouble of dealing with them over and over.
Cindy Oliver, the program’s director, said more than 90 percent of youngsters who complete it never deal with the criminal justice system again.
"That’s probably one of the most successful diversion programs like this in the country," she said.
Zachary Hernandez, 14, was arrested with friends on suspicion of theft at a store in his Oak Cliff neighborhood. He denied committing a crime, but was charged with it anyway.
"If it wasn't for that first-offender program, I would have went to jail," Hernandez said.
His parents completed the program with him.
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"He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and they gave him a chance to correct it," said his mother, Kimberly Hernandez. "And it’s done wonders for him."
"If they send them to the jail house or some other place, it's just going to make them worse," said his father, Phillip Hernandez.
But the city of Dallas is facing a budget shortfall of $100 million. The First Offender program fell so low on the city manager’s priority list that it was not even included in that shortfall figure.
The $400,000 program’s seven full-time staff members are all included in a layoff plan.
City Councilman Steve Salazar said the program should be at least partially saved so it can be fully restored in the future, when money becomes available.
"The money we don’t spend here, we’re going to spend it somewhere else," Salazar said. "And that will be locking up people and probation officers."
"Taking it away would not be a good idea," Kimberly Hernandez said. "The first offender program has done a lot for our family."