Street crime or success: the choice is theirs

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.jevshumanservices.org, and read about TCY on the District Attorney’s office webpage, www.phila.gov/districtattorney.

Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215–354–3113 or at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.