Intervention program gives second chances
Some of the five people who sat on the front pew of a West Side church couldn't tear their eyes away from the scenes playing out in the video they were watching.
It wasn't just any movie. It was footage shot by undercover police officers showing the five dealing and using drugs on the West Side of Charleston.
The five are known as "B-list" offenders in the West Side Drug Market Intervention program.
Police and federal prosecutors have worked to build cases against each of them, but instead of taking them to court, they took them to New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church on First Avenue.
The five were there to be offered a second chance, something not everyone gets.
"I grew up right here on the West Side and I want you to take a good look - a good look at me, because I didn't get a second chance," Andre Johnson told the five. "I used to be one of the worst people on this West Side, in Charleston. I was terrible."
Johnson was emotional as he told the five, made up of four men and one woman, about robbing and beating people up and about selling and using drugs.
After a seven-year stint at Moundsville State Penitentiary, he was told he wasn't allowed back in Charleston, so he moved to Cleveland. But he continued to get into trouble and wound up back in jail, this time for 10 years.
"You don't have to go to prison," he told them. "You guys are getting a second chance. I didn't get a second chance."
Johnson turned his life around since then. He went to school and earned a college degree from West Virginia State University and now works as a recovery coach on the West Side.
He told the five, who were not identified because they have not been prosecuted, that they could be successful and that he wanted to help them.
They were called to the church for the second round of Charleston's West Side Drug Market Intervention program. Just like last year, community members gathered with local and federal law enforcement to talk to the offenders about turning their lives around.
Chris Courtright, the FBI's supervisory special agent over West Virginia's Southern District, told them he believed in the program now, though at first he had his doubts. He first encountered the DMI program in Huntington where it was piloted in West Virginia.
"I didn't think it was going to work," Courtright said. "I didn't think they were going to be able to get through the program and I figured we'd probably be arresting them again.
"We did (arrest) one of them, but the ones we didn't surprised me. They were able to dig down and find something in themselves to finish the program and do better."
In the program, the "A-list" offenders are those heavily involved in drugs and violence. The "B-list" offenders are those involved in crime but also those that the community is willing to give a second chance. They are offered ways to better themselves and also help with addictions if they have them.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin partnered with Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster and other local and federal law enforcement agencies to bring the program to Charleston. There were nine "A-list" offenders and seven "B-list" offenders last year. This year there are 14 A-listers and five B-listers.
Webster said they had some success from last year's B-listers. Some have struggled with addiction, but officers have no reason to believe any of them are dealing drugs anymore, the chief said.
He asked the B-listers to take the opportunity offered them and said he would beg them if he had to.
"I fully expect some of you might say 'eh, they're bluffing,'" Webster said. "Please don't call our bluff. The cases are strong, they're very strong."
If the "B-list" offenders don't take the community up on their offer of another chance, they go to the top of Goodwin's "A-list" and are prosecuted federally for their crimes. The cases authorities have built against them are "iron clad," Goodwin said.
"I want you to succeed, I want you do well," Goodwin said. "But I will not hesitate to prosecute."
Goodwin said the intervention Thursday night is a "get-out-of-jail card but not a get-out-of-jail-free card" for the "B-list" offenders. He expects some with addictions will have to work hard at it.
He said the overwhelming positive of the program is the community involvement it generates. The church was filled Thursday night with people who care about the community or have some ties to those being offered a second chance.
One woman offered to help the five fill out financial aid forms to continue their education if they wanted. Local ministers offered to lend an ear if they wanted to talk or find their way to religion.
Webster said they're seeing improvement on the West Side since the last event, but they're still seeing incidents of trouble in pockets. The five selected were causing issues in their neighborhoods but were chosen because they were non-violent offenders and have family support.
Charleston Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis shook each offender's hand and told them she was proud of them for coming voluntarily to the intervention. She said she knew the road ahead wouldn't be easy for any of them but that she hoped they would take the second chance.
"It's not easy," she said. "It's going to be a daily routine and it's not gonna be easy but I don't want to see you in jail.
"This is your last chance," she said. "This is a second chance that's a gift but it's your last chance before you go behind bars. Please don't do that."
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.