Archive » October 18, 2012
Program provides offenders alternative
By Jeremy Foster, Staff Writer
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a contract with Pacific Education Services to start a diversion program that offers minor offenders the chance to avoid criminal charges if they complete rehabilitative classes and pay restitution.
The county District Attorney’s Office will oversee the program and believes it will help save resources by diverting minor cases from the criminal justice system and will reduce recidivism among certain misdemeanor offenders.
Under a partnership between PES and the local Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, classes will be provided to offenders at a pre-filing stage after a case has been referred to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Offenders would pay $250 to $450 for the program, depending on the number of classes required for the offense. PES will pay the District Attorney’s Office $50 for every offender participating in the program to offset costs associated with reviewing cases for eligibility and managing the program.
Classes include theft and property offenses; misdemeanor vehicle code violations; drug and alcohol; anger management; and life skills – choices, changes and challenges. They will be offered in English and Spanish in both the North and South areas of the county. Offenders who cannot pay will have their fees waived. Only “the least serious of the least serious” offenders will be eligible for the program, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss. Less serious misdemeanor offenses include petty theft (a crime that involves less than $800), drunk in public, disturbing the pace, trespassing, driving without a license, possession of drug paraphernalia and fender-bender hit and run.
Ineligible offenders include convicted felons, recidivists (or repeat offenders), offenders on probation, and people with a previous criminal history that involves physical injury to a victim or criminal sophistication. Ineligible offenses include driving under the influence, weapons violations, animal cruelty, sex offenses, hate crimes, stalking, crimes causing physical injury to a victim and domestic violence.
If the offender successfully completes the program, the District Attorney’s Office either does not file charges or dismisses pre-filed charges. The benefits of rehabilitation mean that offenders won’t be disqualified from employment opportunities over a criminal record, giving people “an extra incentive for them to keep their noses clean,” he said.
Eligible offenders will receive a letter from the D.A.’s Office and will have 20 days from the date of the referral to enroll in the program. If offenders complete the classes and all mandatory victim restitution is paid within 90 days of the crime, they will receive no criminal conviction on their records and avoid going to court, jail or a probation program.
Auchincloss noted the program is aimed at those who are typically placed on probation and are put on electronic monitoring or sent to the Sheriff’s Department’s alternative programs in lieu of jail time. Most minor offenders receive a citation and are given a date to report to court.
He said he anticipates that the program will reduce misdemeanor cases by 1,500 to 2,000 per year – or by as much as 15%. This will enable the D.A. Office’s to focus on more serious cases, he added. “This program is going to help reduce our jail overcrowding problem, but it’s not going to remotely solve it,” Auchincloss stated. “But it’s going to save tremendous resources for our Sheriff’s Department, because each person who gets sentenced to incarceration has to go out to the jail services, and that drains the Sheriff’s resources and generates a lot of extra work.”
Diverting people from the court will eliminate some revenue generated from fines. But Auchincloss said the savings gained from loosening demands on court resources will outstrip those losses. Diversion programs are not new, Auchincloss told the board. Since 1972, law enforcement had diverted first-time offenders into drug programs. But the concept of a general diversion program has gained traction over the past few years and has been implemented in 14 counties across the state, including Sacramento, Riverside, Merced, Contra Coasta, Napa, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Sonoma and El Dorado.
“Diversion for non-recidivist low-level misdemeanor offenders is achieving great acceptance nationwide, and it’s sweeping the state,” Auchincloss said.
He added that PES has a proven track record of success in providing diversion programs: In 2009 after PES implemented a diversion program in Orange County, it conducted a study that after one year, recidivism dropped from 22% to 6%.
“The Orange County District Attorney’s Office thought that might be a little too impressive, and they did their own separate study to validate the findings,” Auchincloss noted. “They came up with virtually identical numbers.”
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal praised the D.A.’s leadership for “bringing fresh ideas,” and got reassurance that PES would be opening up bids to local drug and alcohol providers to serve eligible offenders. Sheriff’s Department chief deputy Geoff Banks also spoke in favor of the program.
“I think it’s going to be an invaluable tool and will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system,” he said. “Under the leadership of District Attorney Joyce Dudley, we’re seeing not only new ideas, but we’ve also seen that she’s open to all kinds of programs, of which this is just one of many. These programs, they’re going to help us solve our problems in the criminal justice system.”