“I was like the typical teenager, thinking I was invincible,” he said.
He was charged with two counts of criminal damage in the May 2011 incident. Because he and one of his friends went inside the school, he also faced one count of burglary. Not long afterward, he was charged with possessing less than an ounce of marijuana.
With the charges piling up and jail time looking likely, DeKalb County prosecutors approached Brown, who was 17 at the time, to join the pilot class of a program aimed at keeping some young adults who face serious but non-violent criminal charges out of jail. The anti-recidivism court initiative requires participants to adhere to a strict set of guidelines for a year in exchange for having the charges against them dismissed.
Brown, now 19, was one of seven young adults who graduated Friday from the program he credits with helping to turn his life around.
Without it, he said, “I probably would have the attitude that I don’t care about anything because I’m going to go to jail for X amount of time anyway, so I would just continue harming people around me.”
Instead, he’s been working at a steady warehouse job and is thinking about going to school to study engineering or medicine, with the ultimate goal of becoming an officer in the military, a career he says would have been closed off to him with a felony conviction on his record.
“It kind of taught me how to be a man as opposed to a boy,” Brown said. “Before, I was just being selfish and thinking impulsively.”
The program is open to first-time felony offenders between ages 17 and 25 who are charged with crimes — including drug possession with intent to distribute, burglary, auto break-ins, criminal property damage — that drive down the quality of life in a community. People charged with violent crimes or using weapons are not eligible.
Participants must comply with rigid requirements: report to private probation; perform community service; submit to random drug and alcohol tests; report to monthly compliance hearings; wear an electronic monitor to enforce a 10 p.m. curfew; pay restitution stemming from their arrest; attend 26 behavior modification classes; and enroll in school or hold down a job.
For Brown, who said he didn’t always show up for class in high school and had trouble being on time, making it to required meetings and court hearings was a challenge at first. Within a few months, though, he said he realized he needed to shape up or risk getting kicked out of the program and having his case prosecuted.
Among people who are jailed between ages 17 and 25, about two-thirds commit new crimes once they get out and end up rearrested , said DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James. He adapted the program from one he’d helped implement in the county solicitor’s office for misdemeanor offenders and said he’s not familiar with any other pre-indictment program that does all the things this one does.
In his experience with misdemeanor offenders, recidivism rates dropped dramatically for people who had completed a similar program, with only about a quarter reoffending within three to five years.
“This program isn’t for everyone because we ask a lot of these people,” James said. “Many people, as many as 50 or 60 percent, flunk out of the program. But those that can pass the program and those that graduate typically don’t reoffend.”
Out of 12 people who started the pilot program last year, seven were eligible to graduate Friday, James said. He hopes to expand the program to graduate about 60 young adults each year and to make it a condition for bond for certain young adult offenders.
Deborah Koetzle, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the program has potential to reach a group that can be challenging to work with and often has a high rate of failure.
“I think this is exactly the direction that we should be moving in,” she said. “As a country, we lately have just been locking everyone up, and obviously we have prison crowding, it’s expensive, and it’s not useful. ... We’re cutting off any positive they have in their lives. The more opportunity we have to keep people in the community, the greater the likelihood of success.”
Locking someone up for a week is more expensive than having them in the program for a whole year, James said. It also helps avoid future arrest, prosecution and jail costs and keeps the community safer if it prevents the person from committing future crimes, he said.
“If I don’t, as a prosecutor, attempt to break the cycle of recidivism, then that individual, statistically, will continue to prey on the community throughout their lives,” James said.