People accused of low-level misdemeanor offenses will now have the option of taking rehabilitation classes to avoid criminal prosecution. The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office will oversee the program and believes it will help save resources by diverting the criminal justice system’s most minor cases.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve a contract with Pacific Educational Services for the pre-plea misdemeanor diversion program, and PES will conduct the classes in partnership with the local Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
Only “the least serious of the least serious offenses” will be eligible for the program, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss — crimes such as petty theft, drunk in public, trespassing, disturbing the peace, possession of drug paraphernalia and driving without a license.
If offenders complete the classes and all mandatory victim restitution is paid within 90 days of the crime, they get no criminal conviction on their records and avoid going to court, jail or a probation program. If not, charges would be filed as usual.
Classes on topics such as anger management, life skills, theft, and drugs and alcohol abuse will be paid for by offenders at a cost of $250 to $450, Auchincloss said.
The classes will be offered in English and Spanish in both the North County and South County, and indigent people will have their fees waived.
The contract with PES will have services provided at no cost to the county or DA’s Office, and PES will contribute $50 from each offender to the DA’s Office.
This type of program has been implemented in 14 other California counties and shown successes in reducing recidivism and saving criminal justice system resources, Auchincloss said, adding that Orange County studies show recidivism rates for these types of offenses drop from 22 to 6 percent once the program was in place.
Misdemeanor diversion reportedly could reduce caseloads 10 percent to 15 percent — up to 2,000 cases — per year, which would have an impact on court time, public defenders, probation and the Sheriff’s Department custody division.
Even though these low-level offenders rarely serve any jail time, they sometimes get sentenced to programs the Sheriff’s Department manages, such as electronic monitoring or work programs.
Filing deputies at the North County and South County DA’s offices will determine whether the offenders are eligible for the program instead of prosecution.
Right now, these low-level crimes result in very little in the way of criminal sanctions, Auchincloss said, so this program could make offenders pay their own way and hopefully get some good out of it. By avoiding a conviction — which can complicate getting a job or licensing efforts — this program gives people “an extra incentive for them to keep their noses clean,” he said.
It also allows prosecutors to focus on the more serious cases, he noted.
Of course, certain offenders are ineligible no matter what, including convicted felons or people who have two or more offenses of a similar nature, and some offenses will never avoid prosecution, Auchincloss said. Crimes such as driving under the influence, causing physical injury to a victim, weapons violations, animal cruelty, hate crimes, sex crimes, stalking and domestic violence will never be referred to the diversion program.
Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Geoff Banks also spoke in its favor, saying the program will help the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system.