Sentence Mitigation Beneficiaries Spend Holidays at Home instead of in Prison
December 23, 2020 / Ninth Circuit Public Information Office
There are a number of sentence mitigation programs in the Ninth Circuit and we found some heartwarming stories where individuals were headed for jail time but were saved by these programs, the commitment of federal defenders, pretrial and probation officers, and their own hard work. They’ll be spending the holidays with family, as a result.
RISE – District of Nevada
“I got into the RISE program after sentencing,” said Salas, who lives in Las Vegas. “They gave me the chance to get out and do probation under the circumstances that I follow the program.”
RISE is a post-plea/pre-adjudication program started in 2019 wherein the participant enters a negotiated guilty plea and his/her sentencing is held in abeyance while completing a substance use disorder program. If successful, the participant has their charges dismissed. If the participant fails to complete the program, they face sentencing from the RISE judge. The program lasts 1-2 years, and one of its principles is a “non-adversarial approach, in which the prosecution and defense counsel promote public safety while protecting the right of the participant to due process,” according to the brochure. The program has seven currently enrolled and two graduates, including Salas.
Salas was offered the chance to enroll in RISE by her pretrial services officer, Samira Barlow. “We were pretty much the guinea pigs of the program which allowed us to test trial the program here in Nevada, and they offered me the program because they saw that I had no prior felonies on my record,” Salas said.
Once in the program, the rules were clear: “staying clean and not getting in trouble,” said Salas. “We had monthly meetings with the parole officer, and we had drug tests. The program would have been a year, but with COVID, it got really hard to actually attend court, so we decided to attend court online.”
Salas was also required to be employed. “I already had a job,” Salas said, “but I was very unhappy with it. They helped me get my OSHA 10 certification (OSHA Outreach 10-Hour Training Online for Construction) which they actually paid for themselves. I’m still looking into getting a construction job – that’s the first certification for going into construction. Throughout the whole course of me being in the program, they just made sure that I was happy and that I was doing everything for myself.”
Salas’ participation meant she served no jail time and, upon completion of the program, the charges against her were dropped. “I think it made me a better person,” she said. “I really thought about how my life was going and I couldn’t be happier to have been accepted into the program because it gave me a second chance in my life to actually be able to do something with myself.” She would definitely recommend the program to anyone qualified. “If somebody had the chance to do the program it would probably change their life,” she said.
Salas was fortunate to have the support of her family throughout the process. “They saw that I was trying to better myself.” Now, she said, “I’m doing good. I was able to get a car. I was able to get another job. Life’s going pretty good now.”
Magistrate Judge Nancy Koppe of the Nevada District, who handles RISE cases with her colleague, District Judge Jennifer Dorsey, noted that, following a successful pilot program, RISE became a permanent program in 2020 due to its success. “The Court started the program because there is a subset of criminal defendants who suffer from Substance Abuse Disorder,” said Judge Koppe.
“The research suggests that, for these defendants, an intensive program that focuses on substance-abuse treatment and career and life skills could change their lives for the better and take them out of the criminal system permanently,” she added. “In those cases, the defendants, their families, and the community at large benefit. The Court is encouraged by the success of the participants in RISE. The participants work hard to earn the benefits that they receive, and the Court has observed the positive changes in the participants’ self-esteem, confidence, and life choices as the participants proceed through the program and recovery.”
DREAM – Western District of Washington
Her public defender told her about the DREAM (Drug Reentry Alternative Model) program. Like RISE, DREAM is a post-plea/pre-adjudication program in which sentencing is held in abeyance while the participant completes the program. The program, started in 2012, is intended to be flexible, with the understanding it is a slow track to recovery. Successful completion leads to dismissal of charges. The program has been overwhelmingly successful. Out of 75 accepted into the program, 63 have graduated, only five were terminated and three withdrew voluntarily. There are four people currently enrolled.
“DREAM was really awesome,” said Green, “I’m 42 years old, and a lot of my friends have been in and out of the system. One thing I noticed was that a lot of the time when they get out, it is almost guaranteed that they are going to go back and do time, again. DREAM was a blessing to me, because I had already mentally prepared myself to do five years in prison. I knew it was a very slim chance that I would get into the DREAM program. When I did—my daughter is 17, now, but she was still 14 or 15 when all this happened — I knew that I would be able to be around for her and get her through high school. That was a huge blessing to me, not having to go and be part of the system and having a chance to not go into my 40s and 50s with a felony.”
As part of the program, “I stayed clean for a year,” Green said. “When I graduated from DREAM, the judge asked if we wanted a copy of the indictment to rip up, or did we want him to rip it up for us. That’s basically what happens to your indictment, it gets ripped up, it’s gone.”
For that year, Green was required to stay off drugs, go to treatment sessions and get a positive report from her probation officer. “Some people had to be employed and pay restitution,” noted Green. “My case hadn’t gone that far so I didn’t have to pay restitution, which was another blessing. So, I was able to go to school full time. I was able to stay in my home. My boyfriend works full time, and my mother and my family were very instrumental and supportive of me, so I didn’t have to worry about the financial angle. I could just concentrate on getting my life back together. I had a great probation officer in the DREAM program who understood addiction, it is not so much being off drugs as it is being honest about using them.”
The program can run for as long as two years for those who have difficulty staying clean. “Some people might go to treatment once a week and they keep getting dirty UAs (urine analyses),” said Green. Those participants may need to convert to in-patient treatment or take more time to get clean in order to graduate from the program. “We all have to be in sober support—we actually are each other’s sober support.”
The program strives to help those having a tough time. “They are giving you tools for keeping you in contact, tools to live,” said Green. “Some of the girls didn’t have custody of their children. The program helps you get housing, helps you get access to your children again, helps you pay child support and with visitation rights. There were a lot of things that didn’t cover my experience, but I saw it help other peoples’ experience.
“At the DREAM program, we had our own paralegal and our own social worker who works directly with us. All our probation officers go for training in addiction and some of them are addiction specialists so they understand what we are going through, how hard it is to stop doing drugs, and how hard it is to change your life.”
Green has been sober for 24 months as of December 2020. She is working on becoming a drug counselor. “It’s a great field to go into, there will always be jobs and I feel like my experience will help someone else,” she said.
“You have to hang on and sometimes you have to look at getting busted and going to jail as sometimes it can save your life. I had never been in trouble before. I was 40 years old when I got busted, so for someone like me who has had a pretty normal life and just ended up doing something really stupid and knowing that a prison sentence could potentially ruin my life, programs like DREAM could make a big difference,” she noted.
Without the DREAM program, “I’d be in the federal prison system, wherever they put me. And I probably wouldn’t be getting out for another three years.” Instead, she’ll be spending the holidays with her family.
District Judge Richard A. Jones, of the Western District of Washington, is currently the designated DREAM judge and he has seen his share of cases that could have benefited from diversion programs. Prior to joining the federal judiciary, he was a judge for the King County Superior Court, Washington, where he often sat as a sentencing judge in drug court.
“In Superior Court we would often have scheduled 12-15 sentences per day,” said Judge Jones. “Many of those sentences were for people who had been convicted for small quantities of drugs. They were selling small amounts to feed their own addiction. Many of these people whose lives had been destroyed: families lost, employment lost, and no hope of the future, found it was purely because of drug dependence.”
Judge Jones noted that, prior to diversion programs becoming available, “as a judge, you get frustrated because you know there has to be something other than pure incarceration, there have to be some alternatives when you know that with proper care, treatment, counseling you can save some of these people.
“You would see scores of individuals who, with the proper guidance and early treatment and earlier intervention could have avoided prison. Not to mention the exorbitant cost to house people in prison. I think the average cost, now, is somewhere around $30,000 to house someone in prison for a year. That same amount of money could have been used for rehabilitation or for some alternative treatment services that could have made a significant difference,” Judge Jones added.
The program doesn’t just save lives, it also saves a lot of money. “We are well past $1 million, probably closer to $2 million, of prison costs that we have avoided through the DREAM program by having alternatives to straight prison sentences,” said Judge Jones.
As for how it feels to help offenders avoid prison time, the judge said, “I can’t tell you how good a feeling,” it is. “It keeps you balanced because the most difficult part of the job of being a judge is sending people to prison. It is hard when you are looking out and seeing a family that is dependent on this person for survival. It is amazing to be able to look out and know that after 12 or 14 months or whatever the months were for that person’s participation, you know that you saved that person. They avoided a prison term, they are back with their families and, hopefully, you won’t have to see that person in the justice system, again. It keeps the balance for all the hard decisions you have to make to send people to prison, you have a balance in knowing you can actually do something to help save someone.”
Corey Endo, assistant federal defender in Washington’s Western District, often sees situations that could be handled with mitigation processes rather than jail time. “There are many people who would be excellent candidates for the DREAM program (or similar programs), but who do not meet one of the criteria,” she said. “For example, two or more prior felony convictions disqualify a person from DREAM, even if a person served no time on those prior convictions or if the prior convictions were sentenced on the same day. If the eligibility criteria were broader or more flexible, many more people could participate in DREAM and similar programs.”
Endo believes the program could be expanded. “I think it is the rare case in which custody is a necessary component of sentencing and most people involved in the criminal legal system would benefit from a therapeutic model,” said Endo. “But even stepping back from my role and thinking about cases from a different perspective, I think there are a substantial number of cases in which the community and our clients would be significantly better served with a diversion program or some other sort of mitigation process.
“Alternatives to incarceration better meet the goals of rehabilitation and, relatedly, the goals of deterrence and incapacitation,” Endo said. “When the underlying causes of criminal behavior are addressed, a person’s chance of long-term success improves. It is easy to imagine that, with different eligibility criteria, we could at least quadruple the size of our program and better meet the goals of sentencing.
“The consequences of incarceration are innumerable and last for generations. Positive relationships are weakened, future employment opportunities are diminished, physical and mental health deteriorates, people are subject and witness to violence, family members – including far too many children – suffer, and the consequences compound each other. When there are good alternatives to incarceration, it is both heartbreaking and infuriating to see clients go into custody.”
Endo supports sentencing alternatives for a variety of reasons. “These programs serve everyone’s interests,” she said. “They are less expensive than incarceration. The programs help people make lasting changes in their lives that in turn help the community. Some of the benefit is just from the reduced recidivism, but there is also benefit in having people feel like they were given an opportunity. Those people want to give back, from finding work as counselors to serving as leaders in sober communities. Restitution is more likely to be paid.”
The mitigation programs are a high spot in Endo’s job. She finds them “rewarding and inspiring,” she said. “Many of our participants have overcome enormous obstacles and it is thrilling to see them enjoying life and finding success. One woman who graduated before my involvement recently sent a text message to the probation officer. She was celebrating four years of sobriety and was thankful to the program for giving her the tools necessary to make the changes she had wanted to make for many years. I am so grateful that I get to be a part of a program that can be so impactful.” Read on for another inspiring story.
CASA– Central District of California
CASA is a post-guilty plea diversion program offering sanction alternatives and incentives to address offender behavior, rehabilitation and community safety. Participation must be approved by the judge assigned to the defendant’s criminal case. Once in the program, participants address underlying causes of their criminal conduct and attend CASA program proceedings that include reports on their progress.
Once arrested, Pedraza heard about the program through his public defender. “They analyze your record and see where you have been, what you have been doing the past couple of years; have you been doing something good, have you been not getting any more charges,” said Pedraza. “I was able to tell my public defender I was in NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and AA (Alcoholic Anonymous), 12-step programs. I had sponsors, I had my sobriety chips, and all of that. I presented all that to my public defender and he went and talked to the DA.
“Instead of them sending me to prison, they said they would put me in this program,” said Pedraza. “It allowed me to stay outside and function in normal society, to get a job and do productive and functional things. I was able to keep and maintain my job that I have now, and just be on the right track – just to live life normally.
“To stay in the program, what I had to do was something basic and simple: just do the right thing. You have to work from a book that they give you – it is kind of like a 12-step book—but you have to be totally honest with yourself and with everybody else, admit to all your wrongdoings, times when you were at fault, and how you can correct your mistakes,” Pedraza noted.
“You had to do a little bit of community service, eight hours a month, which is really nothing, because once you have a job, once you start doing productive things with your time—with your life—you actually end up making the right decisions and choices that you are able to schedule your life around to where you can actually fit that into your schedule.” Pedraza worked at a couple of soup kitchens to cover his community service requirements.
The final resolution was as good as he could have hoped for. “I’m doing great!” said Pedraza. “I graduated, me and my girlfriend have an apartment in Anaheim with our two kids, a 2-bedroom apartment—we have our own place.” He noted his girlfriend “has been with me throughout the entire process. She has been very supportive.
“We pay our bills, we go grocery shopping—life’s just great, now! You end up realizing the way we used to live is not the way you would like to live, doing all these crimes and illegal activities. That’s something the program actually made you realize: hey, you know what, you need to change your ways, man or you’re not going to have a bright future.”
Pedraza is currently a forklift operator at a distribution center in Irvine. “I like my job for the time being, but my ultimate goal is to become a truck driver and make a little bit more money,” he said. “At the beginning of the year I’m going to enroll myself in classes at truck driving school to get my Class A license. That will open up more doors where I can actually make more money.”
Pedraza would “Definitely, definitely” recommend the program to others. “This program is for people who actually want it, who want to work it,” he noted. “The program and the tools are there, provided to you, but it is up to the individuals to really want to work it and change their lives and change their behavior and everything else. It is a great program. It’s wonderful. I’m just blessed that I was able to be accepted and graduated from this program.”
That blessing is in sharp relief during the holiday season. “The charges that were brought against me required a mandatory seven to twelve years in prison, and I’m just like you know, I’m thanking my higher power for allowing me to participate in the CASA program and graduating. Not only my higher power but my strong will to actually do better.”
Other sentence mitigation programs in the Ninth Circuit districts include:
Diversion and Alternatives to Incarceration Program (DAIP) – Northern District of California
Criminal defendants may be eligible for the Diversion and Alternatives to Incarceration Program (DAIP). Diversion, which can occur pre- or post-plea, is offered at the discretion of the Office of the United States Attorney. DAIP may be considered by the court after a defendant has entered a guilty plea. A brief description of each program follows.
Nationally Available Programs