Goleta City Hall.
The Goleta City Council approved a pilot program that will direct people accused of certain low-level offenses to community service and counseling rather than criminal records and jail time. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The Goleta City Council has approved a pilot program that will direct individuals accused of certain low-level offenses to counseling and community service rather than sending them on a path to jail time and criminal records.

The Goleta Valley Neighborhood Court is a restorative justice program, a hands-on alternative to the traditional court system that instead helps offenders take responsibility for their actions and understand the impact on their victims.

“Over the past year, all of us have been called upon to advance racial equity and to use innovation to transform our criminal justice system,” Santa Barbara County Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart told the council on Feb. 2.

“This program will bring together community members to build understanding between one another and help promote public safety.”

Through the neighborhood court, individuals who have committed low-level misdemeanor offenses will meet with a diverse panel of trained volunteers to discuss what went wrong, how the offense negatively affects the community and the individual, and what can be done to make things as right as possible.

The participant and the panel will then agree on a set of accountability actions that could include community service, letters of apology, educational opportunities or counseling. Upon completion of those actions, pending criminal charges will be dropped.

“This will divert the individual from the criminal justice system, preventing the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction for a low-level offense,” said Ethan Bertrand, Hart’s district representative.

Santa Barbara County Chief Deputy District Attorney John Savrnoch said the Goleta program is modeled off a neighborhood court process that Yolo County successfully implemented in 2013. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Cruz counties have similar programs.

A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation report determined that participants who completed neighborhood court programs between 2013 and 2015 had a recidivism rate of just under 8 percent, while prisoners released over the same time period had a recidivism rate of around 46 percent.

In 2019, there were more than 1,200 misdemeanor citations or arrests in Goleta and the unincorporated Goleta Valley, Bertrand said, adding that most misdemeanor offenses would be eligible for diversion through the neighborhood court program.

Misdemeanor cases that will not be eligible for such a diversion include allegations of domestic violence, stalking, inappropriate sexual conduct, selling alcohol or tobacco products to minors, driving under the influence, and cases that involve firearms or physical injury, according to Savrnoch.

“What will be included are crimes that allow an individual to escape the stigma of a conviction when they themselves are determined to change the direction of their life,” he said.

“This will require them to work, to show dedication, and to accept responsibility for their actions. Through that, we believe we can make serious changes not only in the lives of the participants but also develop people who will then become very positive and dedicated individuals in the community.”

Bertrand said Hart and the District Attorney’s Office received funding from the Community Corrections Partnership for the pilot program in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and for the next fiscal year.

The District Attorney’s Office has been allocated $154,500 for the fiscal year 2020-2021 to pay for the position and program startup costs. 

Officials are in the process of hiring a full-time neighborhood court program director who will be responsible for coordinating volunteers, tracking participant progress, supporting neighborhood court sessions and conducting community outreach.

According to Bertrand, the program will serve residents of Goleta, the eastern Goleta Valley and the unincorporated area of western Goleta, but not Isla Vista. Savrnoch said he hopes the program will become a model for the rest of the county.

The City of Goleta will assist in providing a space for neighborhood court sessions to be held once it is again safe for people to gather, spreading the word about volunteer opportunities, and helping identify community service projects for participants.

While the program has been delayed because of the coronavirus crisis, the District Attorney’s and Hart’s offices are working to get it up and running as soon as possible, Bertrand said.

“We all know that our community is calling for innovative solutions to reforming our criminal justice system, advancing public safety and advancing equity,” he said. “This program does that by diverting low-level offenders out of the system and really wrapping them in services and embracing them as members of this community.”

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at jmartinez-pogue@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Jade Martinez-Pogue

Jade Martinez-Pogue, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at jmartinez-pogue@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.