Second Chance 

The Memphis Police Department gives nonviolent offenders an opportunity to get out of the drug game.

During a recent undercover operation in the Hollywood/Springdale neighborhood, more than 40 people were caught on camera participating in drug deals. For five of them, however, the lack of a violent past helped save them from serving jail time.

The two women and three men were the first chosen for a new joint program sponsored by the Memphis Police Department, the Shelby County District Attorney's Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and other community partners. As part of the Drug Market Intervention Program, police conduct undercover operations in specific neighborhoods. Violent and repeat offenders are prosecuted under federal or state laws, but a select few — those who lack a violent criminal history — are offered career training and placement as an alternative to prison time.

The initiative was announced at a press conference last week, but police have been working undercover in the Hollywood/Springdale area since last August.

Five drug dealers — all charged with selling crack cocaine — were indicted on federal charges. Another 38 will be prosecuted under state law. Six were chosen for the intervention program, and five of them accepted.

Though new to Memphis, the intervention program has reduced crime in High Point, North Carolina, since 2004.

"The first neighborhood we did this in, the West End, has a sustained reduction of violent crime of more than 50 percent in five years," said Marty Sumner, chief of staff with the High Point Police Department. "Before we did this in 2004, that neighborhood was responsible for one-tenth of our homicides every year. Since 2004, we have not had a homicide in the West End."

Since the program's inception, High Point police have performed similar operations in three other high-crime neighborhoods. In total, 75 offenders were offered career training in place of jail time.

"I won't say a majority of them took full advantage of the help offered, but they weren't in those neighborhoods dealing dope," Sumner said.

Whether or not offenders accept intervention services isn't the issue: "If these guys take full advantage of the help offered, that's great. But if they don't take the help, get arrested, and go to prison, that's still good for the neighborhoods," Sumner said. "The important thing is what happens to the neighborhoods, not what happens to the [offenders]."

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