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Diversion pilot for federal offenders effective in So. California

The federal courts in the Central District of California, which includes LA and surrounding counties, has been running an exciting pilot program to give low-level federal criminal offenders a chance for a new life. Through the Conviction and Sentence Alternatives, or CASA, program participants can avoid prison and, in some cases, have their cases dismissed.

Alternative sentencing programs have grown common in state courts over the past few decades, but CASA is among the first at the federal level.

For many people, a federal conviction is a dead end. Their educational and job opportunities are limited, and incarceration can destroy their family relationships and social support systems. Having few realistic alternatives for reentry into society, some turn back to crime.

With the right intervention, could low-level federal offenders work their way back to productive lives? The answer appears to be a resounding yes.

While the pilot program is only available to a limited number of people and only in the Central District, stakeholders from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, courts, defense attorneys and offenders have all been impressed so far. That success could extend the program to other parts of the state and across the country.

One participant, a 30-year-old Navy veteran, got in trouble while struggling to make ends meet with a low-paid, part-time job and children to support. While still searching for a full-time job, he started altering money orders.

"It was, like, I can't believe I got myself into this," he said of being prosecuted for a federal crime. Instead of incarceration, he was offered the chance to enter CASA’s intensive supervision program in exchange for pleading guilty. Since he had never been in trouble with the law before, successful completion wiped his conviction away.

CASA turned out to be a “life saver” for the man. Instead of spending years in federal prison, he was home with his sons. He now has a job with the U.S. Postal Service, which he probably wouldn’t have qualified for with a federal conviction.

For defendants with prior criminal records, completion of the program can still mean they won’t spend any time behind bars. Participants have been accepted after pleading guilty to offenses including drug trafficking and bank robbery.

The participating U.S. Attorney sees CASA graduates as “an example of breaking that vicious cycle of recidivism” and said “I think the future is bright for this program.”

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Alternative program gives federal defendants a second chance,” Jill Cowan, Oct. 22, 2013

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