SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Angelique Chacon had emotionally girded herself to spend six years behind bars for selling methamphetamine when her attorney gave her a way out — a new rehabilitation program in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that might allow her to avoid prison.
Chacon, 31, a former methamphetamine user herself, accepted the pre-trial offer, got a part-time job, took classes at a technical school and graduated from the rehab program last year with a sentence of probation instead of prison.
"I'm a totally different person," she said. "I'm sober. I'm more involved with my family. I'm really there mentally."
Chacon is among hundreds of federal defendants accused of low-level crimes such as smuggling or selling small amounts of drugs who have avoided prison time in recent years with the help of court programs that focus on rehabilitation. Many of the programs offer counseling and treatment for addictions.
About a dozen federal district courts across the country have so-called pre-trial diversion programs — most launched within the past five years. The federal court system in California also has such a program in San Diego and is getting ready to launch another in San Francisco.
"The trend has really taken off," said Mark Sherman, an assistant director with the Federal Judicial Center, the research and education agency of the federal judiciary. "There's a hunger in our system to engage in meaningful criminal justice work, and this is one way of doing it."
Many of the programs function like state drug courts, where defendants with substance abuse problems receive treatment and counseling. Still others focus on young defendants with no requirement that they have drug addictions. Regardless, judges, prosecutors and pre-trial service officers say the goals are the same: To help people overcome obstacles that contributed to their crimes and save money by keeping them out of prison.
"There's more than one way to protect the community," said John Gleeson, a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York, which launched a drug court in 2012. "The old-fashioned way was to take bad apples, prosecute them and incarcerate them. The other way is to build the community and work to identify people who don't need to go away and help them turn their lives around."
The growing interest in pre-trial diversion programs comes amid a national push to reduce the federal prison population and save money by rethinking punishments for drug offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted last year to reduce sentencing ranges for drug offenses, and new bipartisan legislation in the Senate would give judges greater sentencing discretion and ease penalties for nonviolent criminals. The U.S. Department of Justice has endorsed pre-trial diversion.
"Community supervision is much more cost-effective than prison," Sherman said.
Though elements of the pre-trial programs vary from district to district, they generally only include defendants with non-violent crimes. They also involve judges in regular meetings with the defendants to assess their progress, encourage them if they get stuck or prod them if they don't show initiative.
Successful completion of the programs leads to reduced or dismissed charges or a sentence of probation instead of prison. Chacon was charged in 2011, along with several other defendants, with conspiracy to distribute at least 5 grams of methamphetamine. She eventually pleaded guilty to one distribution count.
Chacon is among 79 people who have successfully graduated from the Conviction and Sentence Alternatives program in California's Central District in Los Angeles between the program's inception in 2012 and July 2015, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Wolfe said. Nine people failed.
Many of the participants suffered from drug addiction, but the program is also open to defendants charged with relatively minor crimes who don't have substance abuse problems.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has final say over who is admitted to the program and won't allow defendants accused of some crimes — such as child exploitation or espionage, Wolfe said. He estimated that 90 percent of the people who request entry to the program are rejected — a reflection of the serious charges many federal defendants face.
"We're not letting people into the program who don't deserve it," he said.
Wolfe estimated the diversion program has saved taxpayers at least $2 million in prison costs.
For Chacon, it has opened up a whole new future. She works as a forklift operator at an oil refinery and said she recently bought a new car.
"I'm living now," she said. "Before it was just a nightmare."