Program gives drug offenders a second chance

"We're not trying to do a war on drugs; we're trying to do a war for hope"

DALLAS — For 11 years, drug dealing was Uniqua Johnson's job, her way of life. The only one she knew.

"Everybody was living the lifestyle," Johnson said. "I wanted to get what they got, so I made the choice to do the same thing. I had cars. Plenty of money. I made a great living off of it."

Johnson, 27, was arrested in her South Dallas neighborhood for the first time last year during an undercover buy. But that may well turn out to have been the luckiest day of her life.

Her neighborhood — the area around Elsie Faye Heggins Street (formerly Hatcher Street) and Scyene Road — had just been selected as a target area for a new pilot program with a carrot-and-stick approach. Big players are being arrested and indicted federally. The small players — people like Johnson — are offered being a chance at reform and an opportunity to walk away without a criminal history.

The goal of the TOP Offender Program is to transform one of the city's most dangerous hot spots for guns, gangs and drug activity. The Dallas City Attorney's Community Prosecution Office is the lead agency in an effort that involves police, the U.S. Attorney's office, the District Attorney's office, judges, and non-profit groups.

"We're coming together almost like an army of hope," said Assistant City Attorney Mark Murrell. "We're not trying to do a war on drugs; we're trying to do a war for hope, and people who have hope make better decisions."

Interim U.S. Attorney John Parker's office is the big gun in this army. To date, his office has obtained federal indictments for five men on drug distribution charges.

"Every other community where this was deployed, there were significant measurable difference in the crime and the drug markets, so there's no reason why that wouldn't happen here," Parker said.

New crime statistics for the targeted area indicate the program may be starting to have an effect. For the first four months of 2015, gang-related crime dropped 63 percent, and drug-related crime fell nearly 63 percent.

This was a neighborhood where drug deals openly occurred. Spring Garden Drive, a two-block stretch, was ground zero for drug dealing in that area.

It was on this street last April that Johnson agreed to sell an undercover detective four baggies of marijuana for $10 each. Johnson told the detective to drive around the block; she would have it for him when he got back.

After she gave the drugs to the undercover officer, police arrested her. They found marijuana and cocaine hidden behind the home.

"Spring Garden for a long time has been a place where people have hung out and sold drugs," Murrell said. "You would see them come in, get their drugs, and take York, hit Second, and you'd be on 175 in a matter of five to seven minutes."

Johnson started selling drugs at age 15 when she realized she could make a lot more money doing that than working a minimum-wage job. She dropped out of high school because she couldn't pass the math portion on the state-mandated tests.

Last fall, Johnson received a letter in the mail. She was one of five offenders who had been selected by the city and police to be offered the pre-trial diversionary program. The letter invited her to that "call-in" meeting. Family members, pastors and community leaders were invited to speak the offenders, too.

Murrell said the message is: "We got the goods on you. You can make a choice to get help, or you'll be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

Johnson and three others signed on. A fifth declined.

"They had more faith in me than I had in myself at that time," she said.

In addition to regular drug tests, the program helps participants with counseling, finding honest work, and drug treatment. Those who need it can get in-patient drug treatment.

"We've had diversion courts in Dallas before, but nothing that involves the community; nothing that involves the families of the folks that are involved," said Larry James, CEO of CitySquare, a nonprofit partner involved in the project. "This is an intervention with resources. It's not just telling you what to do; it's us discovering with you and helping you determine what you'd like to become."

Johnson meets weekly with her CitySquare caseworker. They've helped her find honest work, arranged a math tutor to help her get her GED, and given her a newfound sense that she can be somebody.

"She's definitely on the right path," James said. "She's proud of that, and well she should be."

Once a month, Johnson and the others in the program appear before State District Judge Rick Magnis. We watched as one fellow offender stepped up. She had missed court, skipped appointments, and failed drug tests.

Magnis was visibly frustrated.

The judge and the woman's public defender explained that the conditions would be a lot more onerous if she were on regular felony probation, plus her record would not be expunged.

"We're not going to succeed with you because you're not doing you're supposed to do," Magnis told her. "I'm trying to get your attention… so I'm going to see if perhaps spending this weekend in jail will perhaps get your attention."

The woman left the court in handcuffs.

Magnis acknowledges it's been a rocky path for some of the participants.

"We're working with them, and we're really kind of inventing the wheel as we go along," he said in an interview. "It's a work in progress."

Then it was Johnson's turn before Judge Magnis.

"You have done everything we've asked you to do, and so we're talking graduation this time next month, and then six months later that this doesn't exist anymore," said public defender Paul Blocker. "It didn't happen."

Johnson's two felonies and two misdemeanors would be erased

"You'd have a completely clean slate," Magnis told her.

Members of the team — including Murrell, social workers and others — sat in the jury box. They applauded the judge's words.

"Thank you so much," Johnson said.

She and her neighbors and officers who work the neighborhood say they are starting to see a real change. Things have quieted down. Drug dealing is no longer rampant on Spring Garden, where Johnson was arrested last year.

"It's peaceful on the street," Johnson said. "You can sit out and barbecue without all the 'who shot John?' going on."

For now, Johnson is working hard to have a better future. She has a cleaning job at the American Airlines Center. It doesn't pay much, and she's been trying to find a position that pays more.

It hasn't been easy.

"I looked up and I had five dollars in my pocket one day, and I had to decide if I was going to eat or get on the bus," Johnson said. "It'll make you want to think about going backwards, but once you think about the consequences… I'd rather go buy a bag of chips and a sandwich than to go backward in life."

She's also out seen how hard it can be for someone with a criminal record to get a job. She has lost job offers after employers ran a background check.

"With cases they don't want to hire you, they will act like they want to, but at the end of the day, they don't really want to hire you," she said.

Uniqua Johnson can't wait for the day her record is expunged so she can get a better job. She wants to one day own her own tow truck business and buy a house in the suburbs.

"I want to be a normal person, an average person — go to work every day, go to sleep, and proud of what I've become," she said.

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