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  4.  » New Cook County Felony program to give some offenders a second chance

New Cook County Felony program to give some offenders a second chance

On Behalf of | Apr 5, 2011 | Uncategorized |

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office has launched a major new program aimed at giving first-time felony offenders with a variety of charges a chance to avoid convictions and keep clean records. State’s Attorney Anita M. Alvarez said the program was the first of its kind in Cook County history and probably in the state. Alvarez said felony defendants chosen for this opportunity would have to complete an intensive, alternative prosecution program lasting 12 months aimed at giving first-time offenders a second chance. Deferred prosecutions have been offered for years to defendants accused of certain narcotics offenses to allow them to go to drug school and avoid a conviction if they successfully complete the program. This initiative expands the idea into new categories of nonviolent crime. New felony crimes that would be eligible for the Deferred Prosecution Program include theft, retail theft, forgery, possession of a stolen motor vehicle, burglary and possession of burglary tools. Felony drug charges that would be eligible for this new program include possession (but not delivery) of marijuana, controlled substances or methamphetamine. Prosecutors began to select defendants for the new program the last day of February. Since then, 80 defendants have entered the program, Alvarez said. If that rate keeps up, nearly 1,000 felony defendants in a year could get a chance at avoiding a first-time felony conviction in Cook County. “It’s clear that there are far too many cases in the criminal justice system,” Alvarez said. “I think that prosecutors can play an important role in implementing new, alternative sentencing measures that not only bring just results, but also provide nonviolent offenders with a second chance.” Among the strict requirements for the program are these: •The victim of the crime must consent to the defendant being accepted into the program. •The defendant must voluntarily agree to enter. •Where applicable, the defendant must make restitution to the victim or property owner. •The defendant must be employed or obtain a job. Those unemployed must complete 96 hours of community service. •The defendant must not possess drugs, firearms or weapons or get arrested while in the program. •If they don’t have a high school diploma, defendants must attend classes aimed at a general education development (GED) degree. •Where appropriate, offenders must participate in drug or alcohol treatment. Offenders also must attend all the court dates and court-ordered appointments. Alvarez said the new program has been in the planning stages since she was elected in 2008 as the first woman and first Hispanic state’s attorney in Cook County. She also is the first career prosecutor elected state’s attorney here, according to her office. “When I was on the campaign trail listening to all these groups all over this county,” she said, “this was a common theme from some community groups I spoke to. What could be done for the 18-year-old kid picked up for a nonviolent crime? Does he have to take that felony hit?” Felony convictions can prevent young people from entering the military or even from getting a student loan to go to college, she said. “Career prosecutors like myself,” she said, “we’ve all seen that group of people … this might be their only offense, the only time they get in trouble, their only time ever in the criminal justice system and it’s a nonviolent case. “What do you do with these people? Do you give them a second chance?” During planning for the new program, Alvarez said she conferred with Timothy C. Evans, chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, also Paul P. Biebel Jr., presiding judge of the Criminal Division, and the presiding judges of the five suburban courthouses in Skokie, Rolling Meadows, Maywood, Bridgeview and Markham. “I have to tell you, they were all on board from day one,” she said. “The presiding judges and Judge Evans thought it would be tremendous if we could get this thing going.” Only the state’s attorney’s office will decide which defendants can be accepted into the new program, according to the announcement. The decisions typically will be made by prosecutors in the approximately 12 felony preliminary hearing courtrooms in the county. The county has had significant success with its ongoing, drug school diversion program for some defendants arrested in narcotics cases, said Mark Kammerer, coordinator of alternative prosecution and sentencing programs for the state’s attorney’s office. Currently defendants in 4,000 cases a year go through the drug school diversion program. About 90 percent of those defendants “successfully complete it and have charges dismissed,” Kammerer said. Patrick G. Reardon, first assistant public defender, said the new program “recognizes that criminal justice is not a hard line, ‘one size fits all’ proposition. To the extent that this program grants those accused of nonviolent felonies an opportunity to avoid conviction and within the parameters of due process of law, our office will participate, where appropriate, in such a program.”