Leniency for sale? Alabama offers first offenders a second chance — at a price

55 counties have diversion programs for first-time offenders, which can erase misdemeanors or non-violent felonies.

On the night of Oct. 12, 2015, 29-year-old Elizabeth Hargett broke into her father's Decatur home and grabbed a TV. Before she made it off the property, her conscience flared and she dropped it on the front yard grass.

A few weeks later, authorities filed criminal charges and Hargett confessed to the crime. She faced two to 20 years behind bars and a lifetime as a convicted felon.

Because she had no prior felony convictions, Hargett qualified for a second chance - enrollment in a program that could lead to dismissal of the charge. Hargett promptly signed the papers, without consulting an attorney. She was eager to make a new start. That's when she found out the deal came with a catch.

"I was told, 'If you violate, you're going to prison for four years,'" Hargett said.

Once she entered the program, Hargett struggled to keep up with the fees - about $135 due at the beginning of every month. Unemployed and looking for work, the pending charges stymied her attempts to make a new start, she said. Still she completed almost all the assigned classes until a slip up eight months into the program.

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