Prince George’s County recently introduced a new program that promotes skills training and behavioral modification over imprisonment. (Courtesy photo)

A new Prince George’s County initiative hopes to steer first-time youth offenders charged with drug crimes, from incarceration to education and work programs.  The Back on Track pilot program, based on a San Francisco model, moves 18-26-year-olds with a first-time drug selling offense into education, counseling, and mentorship programs to turn their lives around.

“Back on Track is a type of restorative justice where we bring offenders into court, allow them to plead guilty and then immediately connect them with a community college, and with Catholic Charities, where they get workforce development,” Prince George’s County States Attorney Angela Alsobrooks told Fox News following the program’s launch May 31.  “It’s a very rigorous program that is 12 to 18 months in duration, and if they are successful in completion, they walk away with no felony conviction, workforce development training, certification from the college, and a job.”

Maryland state officials solidified plans only a week earlier to build a $30 million, 60-bed jail to house Baltimore teenagers charged as adults, making Alsobrooks’ efforts to steer first-time offenders from a life of crime that much more important, she said. “I wish there had been a program like this when I was young,” Charlie ‘Big Easy’ Balston, a recently paroled ‘lifetime offender’ told the AFRO in an interview.  “Petty crimes that I committed at eleven to make sure I could eat, led right into felony convictions as a young adult that kept me doing time over and over again.  I applaud the County for trying to keep these knuckleheads from wasting decades of their lives in lock up.”

About 20 to 30 participants will be accepted during the program’s first year.

Alsobrooks added that the program’s success in California is marked by a less than 10 percent recidivism rate. “It’s taken nearly three years to get this program here and funded, and the best part is that it is much more cost-effective than incarceration,” Alsobrooks said.  “It costs $5,000 per participant for Back on Track, versus $47,000 to incarcerate the same person.”

Developed by San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, Back on Track is believed to be the first program to offer certified work training, financial literacy courses, along with jobs to offenders. “Young people will be able to rejoin society without a record, and the importance of second chances I don’t think can be overstated,” Alsobrooks said.

There are those actively railing against Back on Track, however, including David A. Clarke Jr., a Black Milwaukee sheriff. On his blog The People’s Sheriff he calls restorative justice a “get out-of-jail-free legislation.” Clarke notes that when compared to the true cost of crime in America, including psychological and physical injury, insurance costs, funeral costs, cost for more police, and proceedings, incarceration costs to reduce crime are a bargain.

“Anyone who says that incarceration has no effect on public safety should then explain the record crime declines of the [’90s] and early 2000s when we started to lock away dangerous career criminals for longer periods of time.  Think of the people who are alive today because we got smart on crime by getting tougher,” Clarke wrote in a March 2 blog published in The Hill titled, “Conservatives: Avoid the Shiny Apple of Criminal Justice Reform.”