PHOENIX — It is a program that gives those who have committed a felony crime a second chance.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the Felony Pretrial Intervention program deferred a suspect's prosecution as long as they would agree to complete classes, counseling, and paying all fines in full.
It was an alternative to traditional court prosecution with the underlying premise that getting people into treatment, or counseling could reduce the chances of them re-offending by getting them the help they needed.
"America is a country of second chances," said Montgomery.
Montgomery said public safety was their number one goal, and for that reason, many violent offenders and others who were at risk to re-offend would not be allowed to participate in the program. Montgomery said victims of the crime would also receive restitution much faster with this program than through traditional court prosecution.
Modeled after programs that give those with drug possession charges an alternative to getting addiction treatment counseling, this one is tailored to those who commit minor offenses that are still considered felonies.
Montgomery said his office launched the program in 2015 as a cognitive-behavioral treatment program for those facing class 4, 5, and 6 felony offenses. It is offered to those who have a minimal criminal history. It is "deferred" prosecution, but those who completed the program successfully could have the filed charges dismissed to avoid a felony conviction on their records.
Minimal criminal history, the amount of damage caused, and input from the crime victims is considered when deciding who is eligible for this program.
ABC15 spoke to one woman who had been charged with felony theft after stealing from her employer. The woman who requested anonymity said she committed the crime at a "desperate" time in her life, thinking the money she took could help her mother who had been diagnosed with cancer.
"The little guy on my shoulder is telling me you work for a place where there is a possibility to help your mom. That is when I started taking a couple of twenties now and then," said the woman.
In all, court records show the woman took more than two thousand dollars from the cash drawer.
"I knew what I was doing was wrong. I kept telling myself stop, but my mom kept coming into my head, and I couldn't," said the woman.
ABC15 asked her how she had used the money she was accused of stealing.
"It paid for only two of her chemo treatments. I couldn't afford anymore after that," said the woman.
Sadly, her mother passed away a few months later, leaving her facing a felony theft charge and a potential one to six years in prison for the crime.
"When I heard felony, it was almost like, the whole world just stopped. I felt, what did you do, and why did you do this?" said the woman.
Having no criminal history, the woman was a perfect candidate for the felony diversion program. After getting an assessment, she was told to take one class and pay back every penny she stole.
Montgomery said paying restitution was a key component of the program.
"Something that I've learned over time is that not everybody has a pre-disposition for continuing to commit a crime. Maybe there is a reason," he added.
The overall goal was to teach people like the woman ABC15 spoke to, that crime comes with consequences. Montgomery said these were people prosecutors felt did not really belong in prison, and were deserving of another chance.
"We have more than enough work to deal with when we're talking about gangs, violent offenders, people who have hurt children. We have got enough work there. If we can identify early on the people we can turn around, we want to do it," said Montgomery.
Getting through the program required effort and initiative by the offenders from counseling to classes, and fronting the money to pay for the program.
Montgomery said finances were never an excuse not to allow an offender to participate. They wanted offenders to have some "skin in the game" and pay what they could, but those who could not afford it could get help from the Arizona Healthcare Containment System, or AHCCCS, which is the state's Medicaid program.
ABC15 asked Montgomery what if a crime victim was not okay with the offender getting off so lightly because of this program? Montgomery said, in that case, the offender may not be eligible for the program, as the victim's input was vital.
He added that most people were forgiving and wanted others to get help.
According to the 2018 annual report issued by the county attorney's office, felony crimes that are eligible for this program include everything from aggravated assault to forgery, theft, burglary, and criminal trespassing among others.
Montgomery said the program is no cakewalk. He called it challenging, and one in which the offenders would be required to apply themselves and fully embrace the opportunity.
If service providers felt that an individual was not actively participating in the treatment plan, the prosecution would resume. If convicted, the offender would face the full range of consequences provided by the law for their crime; that included probation, jail time, fines, and prison.
Numbers ABC15 has obtained from the county attorney's office indicate the recidivism rate or those who complete the program and go on to commit other crimes is at 5 percent, which is significantly below the national average.
The woman ABC15 spoke to said she was determined not to be one of them.
"I work very hard for everything now because I honestly feel I've been given a second chance," she said.
You can read more about the Felony Pretrial Intervention program at https://www.maricopacountyattorney.org/168/Felony-Pretrial-Intervention-Program