As part of Santa Barbara County’s ongoing effort to reform the criminal justice system, the District Attorney’s Office is preparing to launch a Neighborhood Court pilot program in the Goleta Valley.
The program is designed to offer alternatives to charges and incarceration for low-level offenders.
The pilot program, which is still under development, will convene a panel of volunteers who will work with individuals accused of a low-level crime, such as a low-level misdemeanor or infraction, and divert them from the criminal justice system.
To qualify for the program, offenders must accept responsibility for their actions and admit wrongdoing. Then they will meet with a neighborhood coordinator and community panel who will determine what actions must be taken.
For some offenders, the panel could assign community service requirements, while others may be required to attend various programming sessions that address negative behaviors. If an offender successfully completes the program, the District Attorney’s Office will not file charges.
John Savrnoch, the chief deputy district attorney and pilot program supervisor, told the News-Press that the program’s ultimate goal is to intervene and help individuals accused of a crime before they become repeat offenders. He said the program is meant to show offenders how their actions have a negative impact on the community and give them the tools to be a positive and productive influence in their area.
“The expectations are that we will intercede in somebody’s life before they develop a significant criminal history and they participate in a path where they end up victimizing multiple people and have a significant impact on their own lives,” Mr. Savrnoch said. “The hope of this is to really have a significant impact on recidivism, on future criminality and on continued criminality, and to actually take individuals who have become involved in the criminal justice system and give them an opportunity to actually become part of a community.”
The diversion model for this project is inspired by what is now a countywide initiative in Yolo County in Northern California. That county’s Neighborhood Court Project functions in a way very similar to how the pilot program will run in Goleta, and according to local officials, it’s had great success in reducing recidivism.
District Attorney Joyce Dudley, alongside 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart, played a leading role in getting this project up and running.
Ms. Dudley told the News-Press that she’s pleased to see the plan coming to fruition after years of planning.
“I tried to get this program started almost 10 years ago in Isla Vista, so I am thrilled it’s finally become a reality,” Ms. Dudley said. “Special thanks to Supervisor Hart and Ethan Bertrand.”
Mr. Hart told the News-Press he’s hopeful that this program will promote restorative justice by connecting low-level offenders in the Goleta Valley with their community. He has high hopes that if this pilot program is successful, the D.A.’s office will consider implementing it countywide.
“I think it’s really important to create new off ramps to the criminal justice system because low-level offenses can carry a disproportionate stain because of the stigma of being convicted of a crime,” Mr. Hart said. “So we’re trying to keep people out of the negative consequences of having a mark on their record that would follow them and make it more difficult for them to get a job or get an education and move forward with their lives.”
He continued, “Creating new opportunities like the Neighborhood Court that can get (offenders) the mentoring and coaching and help that they need is the foundation of a system of restorative justice that helps people rather than punishes them.”
While an official launch date for the program is still to be determined, the D.A.’s office recently selected a Neighborhood Court coordinator to oversee the program.
In the coming months, the D.A.’s office will begin searching for interested volunteers in the Goleta Valley to join the Neighborhood Court panel. Interested residents can keep an eye on the District Attorney’s website for forthcoming information.