Austin Wileman who works at 1810 Vapors in Starkville, is part of the 16th Circuit pre-trial diversion program. Once he completes the program, his felony charge will be removed from his record. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
November 10, 2016 10:43:03 AM
When 37-year-old Maurica Standifer was indicted on a possession of cocaine charge, the mother of two felt she had only two choices: She could go to jail, or she could apply for a special rehabilitation program with the District Attorney's Office and possibly have the charges dropped completely from her record.
"I either do the program or do the time," she said. "And I wasn't about to leave my babies."
The Columbus native is one of about 230 people enrolled in the pre-trial diversion program through DA Scott Colom's office. First-time offenders indicted on non-violent felonies can enter the program and work with pre-trial coordinator Sophia Erby and other counselors to get their lives back on track.
"If they complete the program, they're able to have the charge dismissed and not have the felony on their record," Colom said.
The program takes one to two years to complete.
Colom's aim with the program is, in his words, "to turn tax burdens into taxpayers."
If the system could rehabilitate someone instead of incarcerating them, it not only saves money for the taxpayers, but helps defendants and their families and could potentially cut down on violent crime, Colom said.
Frequently, violent offenders are previous non-violent offenders, Colom said. Successfully rehabilitating non-violent offenders the first time they break the law might prevent them from committing violent crimes later.
It also saves money.
In 2012, the Mississippi Department of Corrections reported the average cost of housing one inmate was $41.51 per day. That translates to more than $15,000 per year.
In the pre-trial program, the participants themselves pay $1,300 -- $200 up front and $100 a month afterward.
Once the first $200 is paid, Colom's office is willing to give participants extended time to pay the remaining costs, as needed. Colom said his office is working on ways to admit defendants who can't pay at all.
Neither taxes nor grants help fund the program.
Also, participants are required to have a job, be looking for one or pursue a general equivalency diploma (GED).
Standifer only entered the program in June, but she too thinks it has made positive changes in her life.
"I'm a better person now," she said. "I don't associate with the friends I used to associate with. I don't drink. ... My family is proud of me, my dad especially. ... I'm proud of myself."
Since entering the program, she has begun studying for the WorkKeys test at the Columbus Greater Learning Center to better position herself for job placement. She said she will take the test next month.
"The program gives first-time felons a second chance to get it right," she said.
Other participants agree.
"A felony charge, you know, that's over your head for the rest of your life," said Andrew Vaughn, who has been in the program about six months. "It definitely puts some limitations on what you can do."
The 26-year-old New Hope native was addicted to opiates about two years ago when he was charged with grand larceny after helping some "friends" -- he used air quotes to describe them -- move and sell some scrap metal, which turned out to be stolen. He faced possible prison time, he said. The program was a way out.
"I knew it was a second chance ... to basically start over without something negative following me around," he said.
Though the program began before Colom was elected and is based on similar programs around the state, Colom has modified it, focusing on assessment plans for participants on a case-by-case basis.
What is required for one participant may not be required for another; It all depends on the participant's unique issues that caused him or her to be charged with the felony in the first place, Colom said.
For Vaughn, that means weekly meetings with the Community Counseling Center.
For Starkville native Austin Wileman, it means monthly check-ups with the program coordinator at the DA's office.
Wileman has been in the program for nearly a year and hopes to finish by his 23rd birthday in December. The East Mississippi Community College student was charged with selling marijuana about two years ago.
"Without that program, no telling what would have happened," he said.
Before entering the program, Wileman spent most of his time sitting on the couch smoking weed, he said. Now he has a job at 1810 Vapors in Starkville. The store, which just opened, sells vapors, an alternative to cigarettes or, in Wileman's case, an alternative to marijuana.
"I help people quit bad habits," Wileman said.
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