Federal court programs aim to keep defendants out of prison

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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.

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