Kikia Stewart dreams of someday becoming a licensed practical nurse. The 34-year-old New Orleans native works as a cashier at McDonald's and spends many days caring for her mother, who is in constant pain and on dialysis because of kidney failure. Stewart's dream includes enrolling in Delgado Community College's nursing program.

  "My mind is focused on bigger and better things in life," she says.

  That dream almost disappeared when Stewart was arrested for drug possession in January 2009. Now, thanks to a "diversion" program run by the district attorney's office, Stewart will have a clean slate and a chance to pursue her dream.

  Planning ahead wasn't always Stewart's long suit. Smoking pot once was more her routine. She lost her house and her restaurant manager's job after the 2005 flood, resettled in Atlanta, then reluctantly returned to New Orleans in 2007 when her mother became sick. It wasn't easy living for eight months in a cramped FEMA trailer with two others and starting over at the bottom of the employment ladder.

  Stewart would wake every morning at 4:30 a.m. for her McDonald's shift, light a blunt, go to work, smoke pot during her break, go back home to watch over her mom and stay high until bedtime, always blunting life's hard edges.

  Then she got busted.

  She had just finished getting high after work when her mom called, saying Stewart's sister was in the hospital after suffering an asthma attack. Stewart rushed to University Hospital, but security guards found a small bag of marijuana when they scanned her purse. She was arrested on a misdemeanor possession charge and spent the night in Orleans Parish Prison.

  Given her record of no prior arrests, prosecutors offered Stewart a chance to participate in the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office Diversion Program. Upon her completion of the program, the charge would be dropped and her record would be clean. Stewart accepted the offer.

  New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro made the diversion program a cornerstone of his 2008 campaign. He told voters that many cases at Criminal District Court involved nonviolent offenders and that these cases clogged the court docket and left many first-time offenders with permanent records. The diversion program already existed, but Cannizzaro wanted to expand and improve it.

  "We amped it up not just to put more bodies in the program," Cannizzaro says. "That's not really the purpose of the program. The purpose is to make it something that they don't come back into the system — that's how our success will be judged."

  With the aid of federal stimulus grants, the program's size has more than tripled under Cannizzaro. Completion takes longer and requires more from participants, but as program director Andree Mattix puts it, diversion is about changing a person's future.

  "If I can break that chain, then they don't become that violent criminal down the road," Mattix says.

When Mattix took over the diversion program in December 2008, she found it lacking on several counts, particularly direct contact between counselors and offenders.

  Former DA Harry Connick Sr. established the original program in 1974. On average, 300 offenders participated at any given time. Prosecutors offered diversion for misdemeanor crimes and low-level, nonviolent felonies, but the graduated fee schedule — which ranged from $200 to $1,200, depending on a crime's severity — prevented many candidates from participating. Misdemeanor offenders enrolled for 90 days and, after an initial drug test and evaluation, were referred for outside drug treatment or other services. After 90 days, the offender returned to the office with a completion report from the outside provider and was signed out as completing the program.

  Felony offenders spent a year in the program, but they also got little interaction with program counselors. Mattix was dismayed when she learned of the approach.

  "I said, 'What? You don't see the people?'" she recalls asking.

  Mattix, 42, has spent her entire career in the criminal justice system, first as a probation officer, then, after receiving her masters' degree in counseling, she developed intensive probation programs such as drug court and mental health court. When Cannizzaro was a Criminal Court judge, Mattix served as his drug court case manager and later supervised counseling teams for programs. From her experience, drug court worked — she says the recidivism rate is just 12 percent for graduates — because it mandates tight supervision as well as a close client-counselor relationship.

  Drug court enrolls chronic drug offenders after they've been convicted of a crime as an alternative to incarceration. Diversion, on the other hand, kicks in before a case goes to trial, reducing the court docket and giving participants a chance to avoid a permanent criminal record. The DA's office estimates that one-third of the local Criminal Court docket is first-time drug possession cases.

  "We're trying to get to them prior to them getting a conviction," Cannizzaro explains. "Give them the same benefits that they [would receive] in the drug court."

  A criminal conviction limits a person's life choices, says Peter Scharf, a Tulane University criminologist who helped Mattix redevelop the program. First-time drug offenders don't usually receive jail time, but Scharf says what they do get is a record that can restrict them much like a prison cell. "This is a city which has become a digital gulag," Scharf says, adding that criminal records discourage employers from giving first-time offenders a chance.

  Mattix sought to alter that outcome by changing (and enlarging) the program. Prosecutors now offer it to more candidates — and misdemeanor participants currently stay in the program for nine months. Felony participants stay in for two years. Clients also have individual sessions with their counselors once a week (less often as they demonstrate progress) and attend group therapy. All participants must be employed, looking for a job or enrolled in an educational or vocational training program.

  All seven adult diversion counselors now hold master's degrees. The program now includes more than 1,000 clients, up from Connick's 300 participants. The demographics reflect the crime stats: 78 percent male, 65 percent African-American, 24 percent white and 8 percent multiracial.

Even if Stewart's arrest had resulted in a misdemeanor conviction, it's unlikely she would have turned to violent crime. She spent only eight hours in Orleans Parish Prison before her husband arranged her bail, but she says she will never forget it: "It just ruined me."

  For most in the program, the initial arrest reveals a problem they just can't face. It's a common denominator, says Mia Kacmarcik, a program counselor. "They don't have the skill set to be able to deal with it," she says. "Fortunately or unfortunately, they get caught up in the court system."

  Counselors now conduct a thorough needs assessment of each client at the initial meeting. Kacmarcik says her clients' problems sometimes boil down to lacking basic skills — how to get a driver's license, a job or an education. She and her clients create a list of goals to address those issues. GED classes, a common need, are available in the same building where the diversion program is housed (2601 Tulane Ave.), and counselors maintain a resource binder to help them address basic needs.

  Some clients grapple with deeper issues such as a history of physical or sexual abuse, which often leads to drug use. It's impossible to know how many might have sought counseling had they not been arrested, but when they sit in front of Kacmarcik, most are willing to look for answers.

  Kacmarcik empathizes with them. She has faced challenges since 1992, when she was a 12-year-old growing up in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Kacmarcik and her fellow fifth-grade classmates had no idea Serbian forces were invading their city until they heard grenades exploding near school. Later that same day, Kacmarcik huddled in a corner with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother as snipers shot apart her house.

  Her childhood was over.

  Two years later, her family moved to New Orleans, where her parents, both professionals in Sarajevo, were forced to take low-level jobs and obtain food stamps. No matter how demeaning it seemed, Kacmarcik remembers, she and her parents were never too ashamed to ask for assistance. She preaches that to her clients.

  "If you don't tell me what you need, I can't help you," she tells them.

  When 26-year-old Garrett Wilson first met Kacmarcik in October 2009, he was in no mood to talk. He had spent three days in jail for misdemeanor possession of marijuana after an acquaintance caused his arrest. He had lost his job as an insurance salesman and hadn't smoked pot in a month, though at one time he smoked daily. Wilson now pinpoints what his real problems were: "depression and disappointment in myself."

  Wilson eventually opened up to Kacmarcik, and they began unearthing his depression's causes — and effects. Although he was a privileged teenager (he drove a Mercedes to his high school), his alcoholic stepfather used to beat him. Wilson lasted one semester in college, his Navy career fizzled after two years, he was divorced twice and rarely saw his 7-year-old daughter Mikayah. Through his sessions with Kacmarcik, Wilson began forming new ways to deal with life and overcome setbacks: He got a job waiting tables at a restaurant and is now a manager; he visits Mikayah twice a month; and he plans to return to college.

  These solutions sound simple enough now, but Wilson couldn't see them before his arrest. The counseling sessions allowed him to talk through his problems with Kacmarcik. Wilson's therapy also included group sessions led by program counselors. Kacmarcik says substance abuse treatment is based on a group therapy model because it builds peer support, encourages shared experiences and allows participants to determine together why they used drugs.

  "I got to see how other people deal with it," Wilson says. "It's the same problem, getting high because they're running away."

  Mattix emphasizes the importance of grouping participants with similar substance addictions. "If I put [a marijuana user] with heroin and coke users, all he tends to do is look across the room and say, 'They're screwed up. I don't have a problem,'" she says.

  Mattix says other substance abuse programs in Orleans Parish often use such a one-size-fits-all model. She attributes that to small staffs and tight budgets. The diversion program's group sessions are different, she says, but it has its own challenges. For example, each counselor has more than 100 clients; Mattix says that figure should be 50-75. As a result, the DA's program must continue a practice from the Connick era: sending participants to outside services, which includes faith-based substance abuse programs and private counselors as well as the state-funded Metropolitan Human Services. Sometimes clients need more intensive outpatient treatment than the diversion program can provide, and the program doesn't always have spots available in group sessions.

  When Stewart started in the diversion program, she attended group sessions four times a week at Grace Outreach Center, a nonprofit substance abuse recovery organization. She encountered heroin and crack addicts, rapists and others with histories of long-term abuse, she says. While in class, Stewart felt "very blessed" about her situation but also angry and scared about her placement. She eventually complained to her diversion counselor, who reduced the required classes.

Derwyn Bunton, chief public defender for Orleans Parish, considers the diversion program's expansion and focus on rehabilitation to be positive changes, but he wants more. He says even at $200 the cost remains prohibitive for his indigent clients. He wants eligibility broadened and an allowance for relapses, which he says are part of recovery.

  "I'd love for folks to go through more than once," Bunton says. "Folks to be in the program, and not fail out if they catch a new charge while they're in."

  Mattix says second chances are possible.

  "If an individual is rearrested for drugs in the very early stages of diversion, they may be considered for another opportunity," she says. "Each case is decided based on an individual's history and commitment to change."

  Early intervention costs much less than later incarceration. Mattix reports a year's imprisonment costs $25,000, while the diversion program costs roughly $800 per participant. Statewide, Louisiana spends $382 million a year on state prisons, with less than 2 percent of that going toward rehabilitation. Forty-six percent of those released from Louisiana jails return within five years.

  Measuring the success of the city's diversion program is difficult, partly because it has not operated in its present form for long. Preliminary results, however, are encouraging: 54 participants graduated from the program from July to December 2009; only three were rearrested.

  In 2009, the city spent $775,000 on diversion, but some of that money came from federal stimulus grants that expire in less than a year. The federal funds pay for five of the nine counselors (a separate juvenile program has two additional counselors), who earn $38,000 a year. Without a new source of funds, the mayor and City Council will have to decide during the next round of city budget hearings whether to continue the program at this level. Mattix says the counselors' rewards transcend money, and Kacmarcik is quick to agree.

  "I sit with these people, and I'm literally involved with every area of their lives, and I see them grow," she says. "It is incredible."

  Stewart is just one example. She graduates from the program in early April.