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July 29, 2014, 4:53 pm

DA announces prison alternative program

District Attorney Seth Williams announced this week the creation of a new unit that would move non-violent offenders into programs designed to address their issues and keeping themselves out of the prisons.

The new Diversionary Courts Unit will be headed by Assistant District Attorney Derek Riker, who has been officially named Chief of Diversion Courts. The new position became effective on November 19. Williams said the new unit is a part of his office’s continuing effort to make the city safe while being smart on crime.

“This is a part of my continuing goal of focusing our resources on violent offenders,” Williams said. “By diverting more non-violent offenders into programs that will address their needs, these individuals are less likely to become repeat offenders. This is what ‘Smart on Crime’ means, and I am very pleased that Derek Riker will help the office with our ongoing efforts to make the public safer.”

The Diversionary Courts Unit is essentially an alternative to prosecution, which is part of the district attorney’s strategy of being smart on crime. Alternatives to prosecution or prison are becoming an increasing aspect of criminal justice across the nation, as state government seek ways to reduce the costs of incarcerating offenders. The overall goal is to reach individuals who are still low-risk offenders and turn them around before they become career criminals.

The aim of these programs is to hold non-violent offenders accountable for their actions and begin addressing the underlying causational issues prior to engaging in the often lengthy trial process.

Diversion programs provide a means for the District Attorney’s Office and the courts to prevent future criminal activity among certain offenders by diverting them from traditional prosecution into community supervision and treatment services. They enable prosecutors to target candidates for rehabilitative programs and for the courts to provide additional services to those offenders in need of more structured forms of supervision.

Williams said most of the city’s repeat offenders started their slide into criminal behavior with juvenile arrests and convictions.

“Most problematic is the high school dropout rate,” he said. “It’s close to 50 percent. When I talk to kids in schools or to people at community meetings and I ask that question they’ll raise their hands and say the criminals are Black. Yes, a disproportionate number of our criminals and victims are Black and brown people but the number one commonality for criminals in this city is they didn’t finish high school. That’s across all demographics. The next big factor is a lack of parental involvement. When it comes to crime in this city, it’s a combination of economic development, education, public health and public safety. Take drug addicts — we have to treat them as addicts, not necessarily as criminals, but to get them help for their illness. To reduce crime, we have to keep kids in school and reduce truancy. Drug addicts need treatment; we have to improve literacy. Now that might not sound as sexy as more jail time, but the reality is that we have seven times the number of people in Pennsylvania’s prisons today than 30 years ago — but we’re not seven times safer. We have to have the right people in prison.”