During a special presentation Monday, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors heard an update from criminal justice leaders on their efforts towards diversion, an endeavor officials say will keep the jail population low and reduce recidivism.
Diversion occurs when a law enforcement officer chooses to deflect someone from the criminal justice system by issuing a warning rather than an arrest. Diversion can also occur during pre-filing, pre-arraignment, pre-conviction and even post-conviction through various programs.
“If you’ve ever been pulled over and warned about speeding instead of getting a ticket, congratulations, you have received the benefit of diversion,” Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman said Monday. “For many low-level offenses, officers will use their discretion to divert someone away from the criminal justice system.”
She continued, “This can involve a warning or a more structured program operated under the police agency’s discretion similar to what we have available for our youthful offenders. This level of diversion should be used for those with lowest risk to the community and those with the least serious offenses.”
During Monday’s meeting, the Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office presented the Board of Supervisors with their current efforts toward diversion, highlighting key programs, policies and procedures that they hope will keep the jail population low.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the county jail population dropped by about 30% from an inmate population of 918 in February 2020 to a current population of 642, the Sheriff’s Office reported Monday.
Sheriff Bill Brown said his office has designed “progressive policies and practices” in law enforcement and corrections through targeted programming, education and vocational training to help former offenders exit the criminal justice system for good. These ongoing programs include mental health services, substance abuse education and life skills education.
The jail has also launched a program called “Courage to Change,” which is a journal-based program that helps inmates develop a roadmap to success after leaving prison.
While the services provided within the jail are aimed at reducing crime rates and future offenses from those already in the criminal justice system, other criminal justice leaders are spearheading efforts to divert offenders before they enter the court system.
In the Public Defender’s office, a small team of Holistic Defense Advocates form petitions for alternatives to jail time, especially for offenders suffering from mental health conditions. These petitions propose treatment plans for offenders, which are then sent to the District Attorney’s Office for approval.
Rebecca Seldin, a specialty court attorney with the Public Defenders, called diversion efforts “crucial to the community” during Monday’s meeting.
“(Diversion) creates an individualized exit strategy for our clients from the criminal justice system and endorses a long-term after care plan engineered by specialists in the field,” Ms. Seldin said. “Diversion attempts to inject humanity into a system that has frequently placed our clients with mental illness into windowless cement boxes. It puts a stop to the ever-revolving door that is arrest, incarceration, decompensation, release, rearrest.”
SE Ballard, the chief trial deputy with the Public Defender’s Office, said offering diversion opportunities for clients suffering mental health issues is an “undeniable step in the right direction (that) should only be the very first step in broadening the use of diversion.”
Mr. Ballard said misdemeanors such as possession, public intoxication, minor vandalism and trespassing should be diverted and “shouldn’t see the inside of a courtroom.”
“Victims of these cases can be made whole without the involvement of the court,” Mr. Ballard said. “Clients can get back on track through community-based programming and paying restitution. The court need not be the only venue through which we can aid those in our communities to right their own ship when they veer off course.”
Ms. Seldin said many of the Public Defender’s petitions are “largely objected to and opposed vigorously” by the District Attorney’s Office, to which officials from the D.A.’s Office responded with statistics from 2020 about their own diversion efforts.
According to data from the D.A.’s Office, 55% of total cases presented for filing in 2020 were removed from the traditional criminal justice system. This means the cases were rejected, infracted, referred for diversion either before or after filing, or outright dismissed.
Officials in the D.A.’s office are currently addressing a historic backlog of court cases that were pushed back due to the COVID-19 cases.
To address this issue, the D.A. started a pre-arraignment mandatory Settlement Court operating out of North County to review cases for potential diversion.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramson is overseeing this effort in Santa Maria, reviewing mostly misdemeanor charges that would likely not require jail time but would enter the court system for a trial. The only misdemeanor charges Ms. Bramson is currently reviewing are for third-time DUI offenders, who are only serving 30 days of their sentence and completing the rest through a Sheriff’s work alternative program, Ms. Bramson said.
Since March, Ms. Bramson has dismissed dozens of misdemeanor charges, diverting offenders of nonviolent crimes from even entering the court system.
“I’m balancing whether the defendant has a minimal criminal record (and) if they have not committed any offenses since the case was filed, and many of these cases are a year or two old,” Ms. Bramson said. “If I feel there is no public safety issue, I am diverting them through a dismissal.”
During Monday’s meeting, District Attorney Joyce Dudley said she and her partners will remain committed to diversion efforts while keeping in mind the lives of the victims impacted by misdemeanor crimes.
“Misdemeanor victims can be victimized multiple times,” Ms. Dudley said. “One misdemeanor defendant can victimize numerous people, family members and co-workers. As an example, a convenience store owner can be the victim of petty theft on a daily basis. I heard from a Lompoc business owner that on a daily basis, they can be victimized, and those (offenders) are not incarcerated (and) not arrested. They’re given a citation. It is so frustrating for our community when they understand that the people who have just victimized them are still at large.”
Law enforcement officials from both the Public Defender’s and District Attorney’s offices are expected to return to the Board of Supervisors with a status update on diversion efforts in 60 days.