JUDGE

First-Time Offenders Get a Fresh Start in Collin County

In Collin County, some first-time criminal offenders are getting a second chance with an enhanced criminal diversion program meant to get them on the right track.

Thursday afternoon, a small group of program participants attended a graduation ceremony at the Collin County Courthouse.

Among the group was 23-year-old Josh Nichols, who said he was at the wrong place and wrong time, hanging out with people he should have avoided, when he was caught with a small amount of marijuana last year.

At the time, Nichols said he didn’t have a steady job and faced a possession charge on his record. But his lawyer encouraged him to apply for the Collin County DA’s Path 2 Criminal Diversion program.

Collin County has had a criminal pre-trial diversion program for several years, but the Path 2 program is new and enhanced. It’s designed for low-level, first time non-violent offenders who need additional support.

Participants are required to complete life skills classes and are paired with mentors and job placement opportunities.

“We can surround you with people who care about you. We can surround you with people who can equip you to make a difference and make something of your life,” said District Attorney Greg Willis. “That then has a ripple effect on their families and friends and communities. That’s a way that a DA’s office can be transformative.”

“Judge Willis had a vision and a goal to create a diversion program that would decrease crime and increase public safety by not only holding an eligible defendant accountable, but also providing the resources, skills, relationships, education and employment placement needed to break the cycle of crime,” Assistant District Attorney Ann Sheu told those who gathered for the graduation on Thursday.

She also encouraged them to take a moment to think about their journey. 

Nichols said he hasn’t talked to his old friends in more than a year. He’s also working in a job the program referred him to. He works to build playgrounds for Recreation Builder.

His boss, David Russell, said Nichols has come a long way since hiring him last December.

“In the first interview, it was sketchy. I wasn’t sure this was going to work but we were committed to give it a shot,” said Russell. “What Josh did is he took that opportunity and he absolutely seized it -- just took it to the absolute max.”

Russell said he promoted Nichols in July and said he has a bright future in the business.

“It’s just amazing to see him blossom,” Russell said.

A key component in the program is job placement. Pivot Staffing Group, a nonprofit, helps screen candidates for the DA’s program and match them with entry-level positions in careers that include administration and construction.

“We want them to be at the right place at the right time with the right attitude,” said Pivot Executive Director Kenny Brown.

“Once you find employment, then it eliminates the risk of going back to a certain lifestyle you had beforehand,” explained Pivot Director of Development Reggie Nious.

The program is meant to be intensive and not everyone makes it. Out of the 15 participants who started the diversion program last year, nine are now graduating.

Graduates aren’t guaranteed a clean record moving forward. Prosecutors will file to dismiss charges and the graduate can apply to have their record expunged.

Charges that are eligible for the program include drug possession, forgery, theft, criminal mischief and trespass. People charged with violent crimes, domestic violence, sex offenses or DWI are not eligible for the diversion program.

Program participants pay a $500 fee along with $50 a month in monitoring fees. Those who are declared indigent and have a court-appointed attorney can have the fees waived.

“One person who changes his life around and then they’re no longer breaking the law. They’re holding down a job, they’re getting promotions, they’re in healthier relationships, they’re raising kids that are in a better environment,” said Willis. “We have the opportunity to be transformative in the community.”

The district attorney's offfice said it plans to expand the enhanced diversion program and that there are 100 candidates in the pipeline.

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