- Associated Press - Friday, June 10, 2016

DALLAS (AP) - Johnathan Monroe has a dream.

The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/21cj3F0 ) reports it starts with getting his associate degree in business administration from El Centro College. A bachelor’s degree in marketing from a local university follows. And then one day, after years of paying dues and saving his money, he envisions opening his own advertising firm.

“Working for other people is fine,” said Monroe, 18. “But I want to be my own boss. When it’s your business, you’re getting out everything you put into it.”

Having a felony on his record doesn’t fit that plan. That could mean jail time and checking an extra box on job applications, a black mark on his prospects for the rest of his life.

But thanks to a new Dallas County courts program launched in January, Monroe is getting a chance to keep his slate clean.

The AIM program, for Achieve Inspire Motivate, isn’t open to everyone. Only felony offenders between 18 and 25 with records clear of violent or sexual crimes can apply.

Completion of the 12- to 18-month program also requires full commitment to turning over a new leaf. Expectations include submitting to random testing for drugs and alcohol, completing weekly assignments on responsibility, honesty and respect, and showing up to State District Judge Brandon Birmingham’s courtroom every Monday for a checkup on their progress.

If they successfully complete the program, they will have their records expunged, giving them a chance at a new lease on life.

But there’s plenty of tough love, too. Minutes after four participants graduated from the program’s first phase Monday, 10 others approached Birmingham’s bench after they were found to have broken program rules.

One got eight hours of road and bridge cleanup for missing court. Another was assigned an essay on resisting bad influences after downing a margarita at a family member’s birthday party. Four got 24 hours in jail for missing urine tests.

“They have to realize that getting to court and showing up for things matters,” said Julie Turnbull, a Dallas County assistant district attorney working on the program. “So they have to get in trouble a couple of times before they understand we’re serious about enforcing the rules.”

The alternative - waiting months for a trial in county jail - would be far worse, Birmingham said.

“These men and women are basically just young people who made stupid decisions that turn into felony convictions all too often,” he said. “We’re making sure they’re learning from their mistakes and paying their debt to society, but without ruining their lives.”

And if participants own their mistakes, as Monroe did when he missed a urine analysis a few weeks ago, Birmingham often tones down the sanctions. Instead of a day in jail, Birmingham ordered Monroe to learn about another man with a dream and give a book report on The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.

“It’s tough at first,” Monroe said. “But you figure out how it works pretty quick, and it’s good for us. You learn responsibility.”

And when participants do figure it out, it’s not hard to spot. When asked to read aloud from his journal Monday, one participant narrated something like an ethos for the program.

“When we face obstacles in life,” he said, “going back to old habits can’t be an option. Going out or smoking . is just going to bring us more trouble.”

The program has funding for only 25 spots right now, but Birmingham said there’s of demand for more.

That’s not a surprise in a county where records show the majority of felony offenses - 72 percent in 2015 - are considered nonviolent.

“I’ve had to turn away five or six people this week,” the judge said. “But I can’t imagine we won’t get more funding, and I can’t imagine we won’t continue to grow.”

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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