One of the main rotundas in the Philadelphia House of Corrections Credit: Bobby Chen / Thetelegraphfield

When Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams was running for office to replace the previous top lawyer in the city, self-described “tough cookie” Lynne Abraham, he promised to implement a program that would teach repeat offenders life skills so they wouldn’t come back to the system.

And then he got elected, and the money wasn’t there. But by 2012, Williams had secured grants from local philanthropic efforts, and now the city continues something called “The Choice is Yours,” an effort to teach young, repeat offenders life skills instead of saddling them with jail time and a high likelihood of coming back.

“I can put somebody in jail for 90 days as a drug addict,” Williams said. “But if we don’t address the fact of ‘why are they addicted to crack?’ when they come out of jail, they’ll just be a crackhead that’s 90 days older.”

As a national conversation rages about criminal justice reform and Philadelphia is looking to reduce its prison population by more than a quarter over the next several years, Williams and some of his top deputies say diversionary programs are key to reducing recidivism rates that can be as high as 60 percent among the state prison population in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia’s prison system has long been overcrowded and underfunded. The House of Corrections facility on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia is dilapidated and falling apart. Three inmates are sharing rooms only meant for one or two. And the majority of the 7,800 people incarcerated wait six months or more before they’re even sentenced.

And prison isn’t cheap for you, the taxpayer. That pre-trial wait alone costs Philadelphia taxpayers $126 million a year. When it comes to state prison, it costs Pennsylvania taxpayers around $40,000 a year to keep a person incarcerated. Over and over again, those individuals are the same people. About 5 percent of Philadelphians commit some 60 percent of the crime in the city, and recidivism rates can hover around 60 percent for the three years after individuals get out of prison.

So what to do? Criminal justice reform proponents will say tossing repeat offenders in jail is an invitation for them to come back to the system not long after they get out. Others say it makes sense from a return-on-investment perspective to find other ways.

“We’re going to send them to state prison, we’re going to spend $40,000 a year, they’re going to come home as a convicted felon now, we’ll bar them from any legitimate job,” Williams said, “and they’re going to have a PhD now in thuggery from being up in state prison.”

So programs like the The Choice is Yours were born. The idea, modeled after a similar program in San Francisco, accepts mostly young people and teaches them life skills. Some examples from Williams: “Show up on time. Don’t get another tattoo over your eyelid. Pull your pants up. Life skills. Job skills and training. Literacy training.”

For non-violent repeat offenders, the city can instead spend $4,000 or $5,000 on training and rehabilitation for a person to attempt to treat the underlying causes of criminal activity, whether it’s drug addiction, mental illness, or something else. Assistant District Attorney Derek Riker, who leads the Diversionary Court unit established in 2012, said the recidivism rate for those who joined into The Choice is Yours program was about 12 percent, or about a fifth of what it was without it.

Diversionary programs like The Choice is Yours probably get the most attention of the programs the DA offers. Similarly, Williams recently announced a program called Future Forward that partners with the Community College of Philadelphia and helps non-violent offenders get educated.

But Riker says that by far the most widely used program citywide is the Accelerated Misdemeanor Program, or AMP. He said that of about 19,000 misdemeanor arrests last year, about 4,000 went to AMP.

After an arrestee qualifies for AMP — hopefully within days after arrest, but sometimes it takes longer — they enter one of two tracks, based largely on past offenses. They agree to do community service, pay a fine and don’t have to face trial. The beauty of that, Riker says, is that they’re released on their own recognizance and they don’t take up a bed in the crowded prisons.

In many cases, those charged can have their records expunged if they don’t reoffend while under the AMP supervision. Those individuals also don’t face trial, freeing up the city’s limited number of trial attorneys to better spend their time focusing on more violent offenders.

People think diversion, they think get-out-of-jail-free card,” Riker said. “But in all of our programs, we’re trying to treat the underlying cause of the criminal activity… so they don’t come back again.”

In terms of preventing people from entering the system in the first place, police, the district attorney and city officials have partnered with the school district to create the Police School Diversion Program, which aims to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline. In that program created by police in 2014, students who committed crimes at school were in some cases diverted to prevention services instead of being arrested.

Former Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who led the program, left the police department last year to accept a fellowship with the Stoneleigh Foundation so he could work to expand the program because of its success. After the first full year of the School Diversion Program, arrests were down more than 50 percent and the rates of expulsion and disciplinary transfers dropped by 75 percent.

Whether it’s students or adults who are repeat offenders, Williams says the new wave of prosecutorial conduct is rehabilitation, not law and order that comes down hard on individuals with underlying problems — or maybe just individuals who made a couple mistakes.

“For those that deserve mercy and those that deserve a second chance, we’re going to make sure that they get that,” Williams said. “And those that deserve exoneration, we’re going to make sure we exonerate them. And that’s the goal, I believe, of what the DA is supposed to be.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Thetelegraphfield from 2014 to 2017.