- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Six men and women who faced federal prison time for felonies walked free from court Friday with graduation certificates and the personal praise of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Holder congratulated graduates of a novel alternative sentencing program that he said was a model for helping criminals rebuild their lives while also keeping the public safe from felons who repeat their crimes after being released from prison.

“Your presence here today is not only inspiring, it is proof of the strength, and the sheer determination, that defines you,” Holder said. “It’s emblematic of the courage that defines everyone who has the resolve to own up to their mistakes, to seek help and treatment, and to keep moving down the long and difficult - but rewarding - road to recovery and redemption.”

The ceremony was not your typical day in court. Holder’s attendance drew a crowd, and the atmosphere was festive as prosecutors and public defenders exchanged hugs, and cameras - usually not allowed in federal court - snapped photos.

The four women and two men who sat in the front of the room, however, looked tense and uncertain. Over the past few years, they were looking at hard time for robbing banks, selling meth and committing Medicare fraud, among other things.

Each got a break by pleading guilty and being accepted into the Conviction and Sentence Alternatives Program that provided rehabilitation and the chance to walk free and, in some cases, have their convictions erased.

The program designed by federal prosecutors, public defenders, the courts and the pretrial services agency is aimed at convicts without long criminal records who committed minor felonies or more serious criminals whose crimes were motivated by drug use.

Holder said he hopes Congress provides money to fund additional programs beyond the few in Southern California.

Judge Dolly Gee, who worked with three of the graduates, didn’t sugar-coat it when she said the program required a lot of time and intensive supervision.

“It’s not for the faint of heart and not easy to complete,” Gee said. “We call them immediately on their B.S.”

Edward Alvarez, who stole checks from a previous employer, is now doing well working for a valet parking company and paying monthly restitution, Gee said. His felony bank fraud conviction was dismissed Friday.

“It’s not what you did, but how you fix it,” Alvarez said when he addressed the court. “Today I’m celebrating my second chance at life.”

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