By Nigel Bowe, Executive Director of Diversion Services, JEVS Human Services
& Jennifer Thompson, Director, Equal Measure
Tasheed Carr is a doting father who had had a successful college basketball career at Saint Joseph’s University and a professional career in an NBA development league overseas, but a series of setbacks found him facing a five-year prison sentence for first-time felony drug sales. The Choice is Yours (TCY), a Philadelphia-based diversion program, gave him an opportunity to undo what he calls “the biggest mistake of my life.” Today, he has a clean record and is running a youth development organization and coaching up-and-coming basketball players.
Developed in 2012 by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in partnership with the Defender Association of Philadelphia and the Municipal Court, TCY is modeled on Back on Track, a program developed in San Francisco under California’s former Attorney General, Kamala Harris. Operated by JEVS Human Services, TCY offers young people education and employment services and a chance for them to re-envision their future through a one-year alternative to trial and sentencing for first-time, non-violent drug offenses. The program was recently expanded to Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County.
In 2019, JEVS collaborated with national evaluation firm Equal Measure to conduct an evaluation of the program. Although TCY was already a successful program that engaged its participants and reduced recidivism, JEVS sought to better understand the “special sauce” that made it work, assessing the core strengths of the program and discovering opportunities to make the program even stronger. Key questions the evaluation asked were: What factors contribute to successful completion of TCY for participants? What is it about the program and/or the participants or other factors that contribute to program effectiveness?
Although the TCY staff was initially wary of the evaluation, fearing the evaluators were there to find failings in the program, the findings and recommendations have been well-received. When staff read the report, they thought “wow, this is us.” It gave us a clearer understanding of what we were doing right and things we could do better, and we responded by using the flexibility and creative thinking that has made us a successful program.
Highlights and Opportunities
Overall, the evaluation found that TCY was a highly successful program, and highlighted two core strengths of the program.
The first was the quality of the program infrastructure and approach, including a defined orientation phase, flexibility in implementation and responsiveness to the needs of the participants, and the ability of JEVS as a large nonprofit with a broad set of social services and expertise to offer holistic supports to participants.
Strategic and emotional attention to partnerships and relationships was the second core strength of the program. Well-defined partnerships with justice system and city offices, a secondary education provider, and a network of local employers benefitted participants, and the deep relationships formed between TCY staff and participants was integral to participant engagement and program completion. “It’s a family…that’s the best word,” said one participant interviewed for the evaluation.
Equal Measure’s findings and recommendations also presented opportunities to refine the program. First, although most participants expressed appreciation for the employment assistance, and considered it a step in the right direction for their lives, many of the jobs were low wage, lacked benefits, and offered no clear opportunities for advancement. Second, even though part of the incentive for participants to join TCY was the opportunity to have the felony charge expunged from their records, few TCY participants took advantage of it.
The quality of the entry-level jobs secured by TCY participants was familiar to program staff but prompted new thinking on more ways for participants to enter and advance in fields with a promising future. The expungement findings were new. Clearly, increasing the number of participants who would have their records cleared was an urgent need that called for creative solutions.
Clearing the Record
Without TCY, the young people who opt into the program would face the possibility of prison sentences and a permanent felony record, making employment, housing assistance, and other social services extremely difficult to access, potentially for their entire lives. Graduation from TCY and a full year without an arrest keeps participants from having a felony conviction on their record. In Pennsylvania, however, an arrest, charges from an arrest, and/or a conviction stay on the record, and although it is not public, the record is available to police, prosecutors, and organizations using FBI records for background investigations.
Erasing arrests and charges requires expungement, a legal order requiring the cooperation of the court, police, and state criminal justice agencies. TCY makes participants eligible to have their records expunged and permanently cleared one year after graduating from the program so long as they have not been re-arrested in that time. Yet the evaluation found that few graduates took advantage of expungement.
Although the evaluation did not assess the reasons why graduates did not pursue expungement, it was clear several factors were at play: participants were not knowledgeable enough about the process and its value, and there was little follow up with graduates in the one year post-program, which is when they would become eligible for expungement. Increasing the number of TCY graduates with successfully expunged records is now an important goal for TCY, and we immediately initiated several reforms to the program to encourage TCY graduates to take this step.
To make participants more knowledgeable about the value and process of expungement, TCY is partnering with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE). TCY will sponsor two clinics conducted by PLSE, one for participants as they first enter the program and one in the orientation phase, so participants will understand the importance and the benefits of getting their cases not just dismissed but also expunged.
TCY has also added a third phase of the program: in addition to an enrollment phase and an orientation phase, the program will now have an official expungement phase post-graduation, where participants are contacted monthly by the program. The participants are not required to stay engaged with TCY, but we hope a regular friendly check-in from TCY’s staff to see how things are going and to offer any needed services will be an additional incentive to avoid re-arrest and to pursue expungement.
Our hope is that the enhanced education on expungement, expanded follow up, and assistance from PLSE will result in many more successful TCY graduates benefitting from their arrests being entirely erased from their records.
Refocus on Education and Credentials
Equal Measure’s evaluation findings on the limited employment horizons for TCY participants prompted additional thinking on the program’s current educational training. TCY had an existing partnership with Penn Foster, an accredited online high school completion program and career training school, offering participants without a high school diploma the chance to complete it during the program. But the evaluation findings persuaded us that something more needed to be done. lthough nearly 75% of our participants were placed in employment, the evaluation made clear many participants needed more training if they were going to make a career path for themselves that offered more than a low-wage job.
We worked with our education partner to choose educational sectors with high potential for solid career opportunities and which we believed would appeal to participants: medical, construction, and information technology. Participants will now have a chance to earn a credential in one of these fields.
Now, when a participant enrolls to earn his or her high school diploma, he or she is also able to add in electives geared towards earning a career pathway credential. After the high school program is complete, they will have a few additional weeks to complete the certificate credential in one of those four areas. For example, one of the credentials will be pharmacy technician which partners for job placement with CVS and Walgreen’s.
The credentialing opportunity will be heavily promoted to eligible incoming participants, whether they enter the program with a high school diploma or are completing it with help from the program.
We’re hoping that adding the career pathway credential capability to our high school completion program will allow our graduates to get a good job with a wage that will support them and their families, and which gives them an opportunity for more pay and career advancement. Along with a new focus on clearing their records, we believe TCY will offer even more value to the participants who turn to us for a second chance. Thanks to the evaluation, we had an opportunity to take tangible steps to address issues of equity and economic opportunity affecting our participants, aligning with the larger social justice goals of TCY and JEVS Human Services.