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Philly DA’s illegal gun possession diversion program reports a 76% decrease in re-arrests among participants

Of the 186 people the program has served since September 2021, 67% reported full-time employment at the time of graduation, and only 5% of participants had been rearrested in the first year after graduating.

(Photo illustration by Jill Bauer-Reese)

One by one in early February, a dozen men and women approached a court bench in the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center to receive a letter confirming their gun possession charges would be dropped. The piece of paper marked the completion of a six-month diversion program that the District Attorney’s Office says is key to reducing violent crime in the city. 

For Narisse, 24, graduating from the Alternative Felony Diversion program puts him a step closer to succeeding as a photographer. The father of three also has a photo booth rental business and will soon start working as a server at a new minigolf venue downtown.

“It kept me on top of my responsibility and made me be better at time management,” he said of the diversion program. “It kept me on my toes.”

When Narisse was 21, he said he purchased a firearm at a store. 

“I was just basically trying to protect myself, because you never know what was going on out there,” he said.

In Philadelphia, there is no license requirement for buying a firearm. However, anyone who wants to take a gun outside of their home must apply for a license to carry.

Narisse said he had only had his gun for one day when Philadelphia Police Department officers pulled him over for driving in the wrong direction down a one-way street. 

“It was in my lockbox inside my glove compartment but when the cops came to ask my registration when I got pulled over it fell out,” he said. “And that’s when I got arrested.” 

The Alternative Felony Disposition program is an option for individuals who have no adult criminal convictions or juvenile felony adjudications, have never brandished a weapon, have no “group affiliations,” and had no intent to commit another crime using the gun, as determined by the arrest report.

Of the 186 people the program has served since September 2021, 67% reported full-time employment at the time of graduation, and only 5% of participants had been rearrested in the first year after graduating, according to data compiled by the District Attorney’s Office last fall. That’s compared to a 21% re-arrest rate over that period for defendants convicted of gun possession – a 76% decrease. 

There are currently 81 people participating in the gun possession diversion program, including the 13 that completed it on Feb. 1. Those graduates are moving on to be home health aides, electricians, cashiers, and forklift operators. One participant said the expungement will allow him to open his long-planned tattoo shop. 

In Kensington, a nonprofit organization called Ride Free tries to help people who’ve been charged, as well as those who’ve been in and out of incarceration, avoid future encounters with the law. The group offers mentorship, job placement, documentation assistance, resume building, and a handful of work certifications.

Kareem Carroll, who has been working as an outreach member for Ride Free for the past six months, said many of the participants do carry a firearm. He said a diversion program will be helpful for this group as long as social workers really spend time with individuals to figure out what they most want. 

“[Krasner] gotta make sure the people that’s a part of it, who are coming from the street, are really engaged in it, really committed,” he said. “That diversion program is basically to help out those who want the help … then a person won’t look back at that BS option so bad, they’ll look forward.” 

‘A positive path’

Participants in the Alternative Felony Disposition program are assigned to cohorts and paired with a social worker who offers counseling, employment assistance, educational opportunities and basic services such as getting an I.D. The Center for Carceral Communities at the University of Pennsylvania provides additional casework services 

Cohorts also have weekly 90-minute meetings with social workers and formerly incarcerated mentors, as well as virtual hearings with supervising judges every 6 to 8 weeks. Participants are expected to work or attend school full-time. 

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said people who carry guns for their own self-protection don’t need to be incarcerated.

“Convictions can fix some things, they can also break some things,” he said to the courtroom during the graduation ceremony. “When you have someone with no or next to no criminal record, someone who’s carrying a gun out of fear, what a conviction can do is break them.”

The Philadelphia Police Department has been ramping up illegal gun possession arrests – arrests increased by more than 100% between 2015 and 2020 according to a 2022 report from the Office of the Controller. However, the conviction rates for illegal gun possession cases prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office decreased significantly, from 65% in 2015 to 42% in 2020.

Krasner argues his office’s resources are better spent prosecuting shooters than gun-carriers. Of the 1,043 people convicted of gun possession between 2015 and 2017 in Philadelphia, less than two percent were later arrested for a crime where a gun was fired, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

Pennsylvania Republicans tried and failed to impeach Krasner last fall over his decision not to prosecute illegal gun ownership and other offenses.

Clearing participants’ gun possession arrests helps them to find jobs, housing, driver’s licenses and other assets that set them up for fuller, safer lives, Krasner said. 

“What we need to do is actually follow the law, follow the constitution, and separate out the large number of people who will go down a positive path if they have an opportunity from the ones who need to be locked up,” he said.  

Expanding diversion

There are 210 people on the waiting list, according to the District Attorney’s Office. People on the list generally wait 18 months to access the program.

That’s due to a lack of social workers to serve the number of eligible people, said social worker Julia Solomons. There are three social workers involved currently, and a fourth one is onboarding, according to the office. 

“In order to maintain the integrity of the program we want people to be able to do intensive work with the participants, which means they can’t have caseloads that are too high,” she said. “Unfortunately that means we can only work with a certain number of people at a time.”

The program is funded by $765,000 in grants from private funders, according to a District Attorney’s Office spokesperson.

There are a handful of other illegal gun possession diversion programs around the country. The Vera Institute of Justice helped build a few of them, including the ones in Hennepin County, MN and Savannah, GA. 

A Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office study found that 10% of its graduates had been convicted of a new crime since graduating, and only one of those crimes involved violence. Another 17% of graduates had pending charges. Minnesotans who did not participate in the diversion program, by comparison, had a recidivism rate of about 50% over three years of study. 

The most successful programs are those that include social work, cognitive behavioral therapy, and restorative justice circles, said Mona Sahaf, director of the institute’s Reshaping Prosecution initiative.

“Incarceration is so destabilizing for that person, for families, for communities,” Sahaf said. “It’s interrupting all the things people need to do well. The evidence tells us, research tells us that incarceration isn’t associated with lowering crime rates.”

Sahaf also points out that arrests for illegal gun possession are often racially motivated. 

About four in five people arrested for illegal gun possession in Philadelphia are Black, according to the 100 Shooting Review Committee Report published in January 2022.

For Narisse, 24, the most helpful component of the program was having a social worker to help him get his career on track.

“It was amazing, she basically helped me the whole time I was in the program, everything I needed,” he said. “I advise everybody who need it to get into the program, they definitely help you out.”

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