Metro

Defendants offered alternative to prison

Two and a half years ago, Laura Santana was caught smuggling close to a pound of cocaine through Logan International Airport, and federal prosecutors wanted her to serve two years behind bars.

But federal court officials had a different idea. Santana was offered an opportunity to participate in new rehabilitation program meant to set defendants on a corrective path with rehabilitation even before they aresentenced.

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The program also allows judges to take participation in the program under consideration when handing out a sentence.

As one of the first participants in the pilot program, called RISE, the 29-year-old Santana obtained her general equivalency diploma, and started attending Bunker Hill Community College.

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She has maintained a full-time job and has been seeing a therapist. She even bought her first home.

On graduation day in October, Santana told a magistrate judge how the program had helped her, and expressed hope that her success would make a difference at her sentencing hearing the next month.

“I truly want to make amends, and get to a place where I would never make these decisions again,” she told Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley, who supervises the program, as she wiped tears from under her glasses.

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“You’ve done a wonderful job, and taken advantage of everything we’ve offered you,” Kelley told Santana, handing her a graduation certificate. She wished her luck at her sentencing.

The RISE program, an acronym for Repair, Invest, Succeed, Emerge, was launched last year as a three-year pilot in federal court in Boston, and Santana was among the first three participants to graduate in October.

The program is meant for nonviolent offenders whose crimes can be attributed to drug addiction or a disadvantaged upbringing, and who could benefit from the rehabilitation assistance.

A committee of defense lawyers, prosecutors and probation officials decides whether defendants qualify, and the defendant establishes a list of achievable goals, working with a magistrate judge.

The philosophy is part of a broader movement by criminal justice officials nationwide to consider alternatives to lengthy prison sentences, to stem the increasing costs of incarceration and provide rehabilitation programs that could help reduce recidivism.

Boston’s program has the support of federal prosecutors, though such programs are likely to come under review under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has proposed a return to a tough-on-crime criminal justice policy.

So far, 18 defendants have participated in RISE, though one was terminated for failure to comply.

The three graduates include Santana and Yesenia Garcia, a mother of five from Lawrence, who helped a drug-dealing friend hide thousands of dollars in profits by making small bank deposits on his behalf.

The third, Maxamillion Rivela, was an 18-year-old high school dropout with a history of drug abuse when he was arrested for the first time on charges of participating in a gun smuggling ring.

Rivela was sentenced earlier in November to nine months in prison. He had faced close to four years under sentencing guidelines.

Garcia had faced 6 to 12 months in prison under sentencing guidelines. She was instead sentenced in November to a year of probation after completing the program.

“For you, the program was a very good thing,” US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin, who led efforts to develop the program in Boston, told her at her sentencing hearing. “We’ve been able to help you help yourself.”

Those who worked with Santana had hoped she would have the same success.

After visiting the Dominican Republic in June 2014, she admitted to customs inspectors that she agreed to smuggle two pocketbooks containing an unknown substance on behalf of a man she met months earlier. He began flirting with her one night, and offered to pay her $5,000 to smuggle the bags, she said.

However, prosecutors suspected she had smuggled drugs before and said she was uncooperative, unremorseful, and not a good candidate for the RISE program. They asked that she be sentenced to two years in prison.

US Chief District Judge Patti B. Saris, the presiding judge, agreed to let her join the program. But prison remained a possibility.

“There are no promises,” Saris said, during a June 2015 hearing.

Over the last year, Santana appeared at regular meetings with Kelley, the magistrate judge. At a meeting in February, she nervously told Kelley she obtained her GED and was looking for a new apartment.

Months later, she reported that she was attending therapy and taking part in a restorative justice program, a way to understand the gravity of her crime and its effect on others.

On Nov. 28, a year after she started the program, she was back before Saris, nervously waiting to hear her sentence.

Prosecutors recommended that she serve no prison time. Saris agreed, and sentenced Santana to three years probation.

“You really look like a different person,” the judge told her. “I hope . . . I will never have to see you again.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia-@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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