When Sgt. Charity Prosser was asked a few years ago to help rehabilitate eight drug dealers from the Charleston Farms neighborhood, she was skeptical.

The men had been arrested on drug charges, but were given a chance: Get through the North Charleston Police Department's program and their cases would be dismissed. Even better, they could walk away with a job.

Half of them got through it. The others went back to jail.

"As much as it hurt us to have to go forward with the ones we had to arrest," Prosser said, "we knew at the end of the day we had to show them that sense of responsibility."

Armed with the experience of running the last program, Prosser will now head a modified version of the program, which bears the same acronym, STAND, or Step Toward a New Direction. This time, however, the participants will be volunteers who have criminal histories but aren't currently facing charges.

"We want to see a pure of heart situation where they are motivated to remove roadblocks, acknowledge their past wrongs and not let that continue to drag them down," Prosser said.

Lessons learned

The program will consist of education, employment assistance and opportunities for community service. It will also incorporate mental health and family counseling.

"We learned a lot from the last one," Prosser said."The mental health aspect of this is important, which lacked a little in the last one, so we've built it into this program."

The U.S. attorney in South Carolina, Bill Nettles, called the first program a success.

"That's four people, 50 percent of the people in the program, who are working and paying taxes. They are pulling their own weight," Nettles said.

Nettles said the success of the participants went beyond themselves.

"These are multi-generational problems. If you lock up the daddy for 25 years, the odds of children going to prison increases exponentially," he said.

Nettles also praised the new approach to this year's program.

"I'm proud of what they've done, taking the lessons they've learned," Nettles said.

The program garnered national attention and "Dateline NBC" followed the progress of the eight men in the program in 2011 and 2012 and highlighted their successes and failures.

The new program also is earning some attention. Prosser and one of the former participants of the group met with Attorney General Eric Holder during his visit to Charleston in April.

Moving forward

Nettles said other cities in the state are now implementing some form of the program, including Conway and Aiken.

Nettles, however, said it's not a cookie-cutter program, but one that must be modified to fit each community.

"There is no script. It's a mind-set. We have to say we are doing away with the 'us versus them' mentality," he said.

Gerinda Doctor, who has been a resident of the Forest Hills Neighborhood since 1977 and is president of its neighborhood association, calls the program a step in the right direction.

"To build that relationship between people in the community and police and especially those with criminal backgrounds is a stepping stone," she said.

Doctor, who said she has been troubled by the shootings among black youth in the city, said the program would be a success even if it helped only one individual.

The police department is collaborating with businesses around the area to help secure employment for these men and women.

"We're trying to get these men and women to a point where it's not just a job, not just a paycheck, we want them to love what they do and focus on their talents in life," Prosser said.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey hailed the collaboration and businesses willing to hire the individuals who make it through the program.

"I think the overwhelming part of it is that they want to be part of positive change in the community," he said.

A task force will review all the applicants and choose about a dozen people for this year's program.

It has become Prosser's sole mission to make the program a success. Prosser, who used to work in the narcotics squad, will be dedicated to this program alone, which she calls a rewarding experience.

"You come across people on the street and they tell you their troubles and you wonder if the person was given the opportunity, would they change their life?" she said. "This is that moment I can say let's see what they can do."

Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.